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Great Scientists

James Watson

1928 -

James Watson

James Watson, born 1928, is an American molecular biologist, who is credited, along with Francis Crick, with discovering the form of the DNA molecule, for which he shared the Nobel Prize.

  • Nationality
  • American

  • Subject
  • Biology, genetics

  • Fields
  • Molecular biology, zoology

  • Distinctions
  • 1962 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine (shared with Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins) for 'their discoveries concerning the molecular structure of nucleic acids and its significance for information transfer in living material.

  • Posts
  • Variously director, president and chancellor of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CHSL) on Long Island, New York.

    Head of the Human Genome Project at the National Institutes of Health, 1990 - 1992. He resigned in protest at the Institute desiring to patent gene sequences.

  • Publications
  • Discovery of the structure of DNA, deoxyribose nucleic acid, and the relationships of the four bases. Nature April 25, 1953 (Francis Crick and James Watson).

    Molecular Biology of the Gene, 1965, a textbook.

    Molecular Biology of the Cell, 1983, a textbook. Contributions to the first edition.

    Recombinant DNA, a textbook.

    The Double Helix, 1968, a bestseller. New edition, The Annotated and Illustrated Double Helix, 2012.

    Autobiography: Avoid Boring People

  • Theories
  • Watson and Crick used data from Rosalind Franklin's X-ray crystallography to deduce the double-helix structure of the DNA, described as the most important scientific discovery of the 20th century.

    Watson proposed in 2004 that oxidants have a different role in disease than previously thought.

  • Experiments/Discoveries
  • Crick and Watson's work depended greatly on Rosalind Franklin's groundbreaking crystallography photographs of DNA structures.

James Watson's talents were discovered early, and he was given a scholarship to the University of Chicago at the ripe young age of 15.

Watson was inspired by Erwin Schrödinger's book What is Life? (1944) to enter the field of genetics, although his BSc was in zoology (1947).

At the time of Watson's initial research, 1948, the DNA was considered to be 'a stupid tetranucleotide', and had no functional role apart from structural support to proteins. Genes were thought to be proteins.

Watson first encountered Maurice Wilkins, at a meeting in Italy, where he learned of Wilkins' X-ray diffraction of DNA. Things began to move apace when Linus Pauling published his findings, in 1951, concerning his model for the amino acid alpha helix - also using X-ray crystallographic techniques.

Many people worked on determining the DNA structure. A co-Nobel laureate, Maurice Wilkins, worked in the laboratory of Rosalind Franklin, herself a contender for the Nobel Prize, if she had not tragically died in 1958 of cancer. She had taken the famous 'helix crystallography photo' of an x-ray diffraction pattern of strands of DNA, which permitted Crick and Watson to decipher the DNA structure. Some acrimony resulted, since Franklin felt she had been sidelined in the press furore following the publication.

The concluding sentence of Crick and Watson's 1953 paper is: "The significance of this structure has not escaped us." A justly prophetic, if massively understated conclusion!

James Watson was a vocal opponent of 'ownership of laws of nature', and resigned as director of the Human Genome Project in protest at the Institute hosting it wanting to patent gene sequences commercially. Watson published his genome online to 'encourage the development of an era of personalized medicine'.