Watson, James D. 1928–

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Watson, James D. 1928–

(James Dewey Watson)

PERSONAL: Born April 6, 1928, in Chicago, IL; son of James D. (a businessman) and Jean (Mitchell) Watson; married Elizabeth V. Lewis (an architectural historian), March 28, 1968; children: Rufus Robert, Duncan James. Education: University of Chicago, B.S., 1947; Indiana University, Ph.D., 1950. Hobbies and other interests: Tennis.

ADDRESSES: Home—Bungtown Rd., Cold Spring Harbor, NY 11724. Office—Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, P.O. Box 100, Cold Spring Harbor, NY 11724. E-mail[email protected]

CAREER: Research scientist and educator; co-discoverer, with Francis H.C. Crick and Maurice H.F. Wilkins, a double-helical structure of DNA. University of Copenhagen, Copenhagen, Denmark, Merck Fellow of National Research Council, 1950–51; Cambridge University, Cavendish Laboratory, Cambridge, England, research fellow, 1951–52, engaged in bio-chemical research with Crick, 1955–56; California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, senior research fellow in biology, 1953–55; Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, assistant professor, 1956–58, associate professor, 1958–61, professor of molecular biology, 1961–76; Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, Cold Spring Harbor, NY, member of board of trustees, 1965–, director, 1968–94, president, 1994–. National Center for Human Genome Research, National Institutes of Science, director, 1989–92. DNA Sciences, member, board of directors, 2000–. Consultant, President Kennedy's scientific advisory committee.

MEMBER: American Academy of Arts and Sciences, National Academy of Sciences, Royal Danish Academy, American Society of Biological Chemists, American Association for Cancer Research, American Philosophical Society, Royal Society (London, England), Athenaeum Club (London), Piping Rock Club (New York), Academy of Sciences (Russia), Oxford University, National Academy of Sciences (Ukraine), University College Galway, Institute of Biology (London, England), Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (Bombay, India).

AWARDS, HONORS: (Corecipient, with Francis H.C. Crick) John Collins Warren Prize, Massachusetts General Hospital, 1959; Eli Lilly Award, 1960; (with Crick and Maurice H.F. Wilkins) Albert Lasker Award, American Public Health Association, 1960; (with Crick) Research Corporation Prize, 1962; (with Crick and Wilkins) Nobel Prize in medicine and physiology, 1962; honorary fellow, Clare College, Cambridge, 1967; John J. Carty Gold Medal, National Academy of Sciences, 1971; President Medal of Freedom, 1977; Guggenheim fellowship, 1983; Kaul Foundation Award for Excellence, 1992; Copley Medal of the Royal Society, 1993; Charles A. Dana Distinguished Achievement Award in Health, 1994; Lomonosov Medal, Russian Academy of Sciences, 1995; National Medal of Science awarded by President Clinton, 1997. D. Sc., University of Chicago, 1961, Indiana University, 1963, Long Island University, 1970, Adelphi University, 1972, Brandeis University, 1973, Albert Einstein College of Medicine, 1974, Hofstra University, 1976, Harvard University, 1978, Rockefeller Foundation, 1980, Clarkson College of Technology, 1981, State University of New York, 1983, Rutgers University, 1988, and Bard College, 1991; LL. D., University of Notre Dame, 1965; honorary M.D., Buenos Aires University, 1986.


The Molecular Biology of the Gene (textbook), W.A. Benjamin (New York, NY), 1965, 5th revised edition, Benjamin-Cummings (Menlo Park, CA), 2003.

The Double Helix: A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA, Atheneum (New York, NY), 1968, critical edition edited by Gunther S. Stent, Norton (New York, NY), 1980.

(Editor, with H.H. Hiatt and J.A. Winsten) Origins of Human Cancer, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press (Plainview, NY), 1977.

(With John Tooze) The DNA Story: A Documentary History of Gene Cloning, W.H. Freeman (San Francisco, CA), 1981.

(With John Tooze and David T. Kurtz) Recombinant DNA: A Short Course, W.H. Freeman (San Francisco, CA), 1983, 2nd edition, 1992.

(Editor, with Kiyoshi Mizobuchi and Itaru Watanabe) Nucleic Acid Research: Future Development, Academic Press (New York, NY), 1983.

Recognition and Regulation in Cell-Mediated Immunity, edited by J. Marbrook, Dekker (New York, NY), 1985.

Landmarks of Twentieth-Century Genetics: A Series of Essays (bound with Houses for Science: A Pictorial History of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, by wife, Elizabeth L. Watson), Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press (Cold Spring Harbor, NY), 1991.

(Editor, with John Cairns and Stent) Phage and the Origins of Molecular Biology, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press (Cold Spring Harbor, NY), 1992.

A Passion for DNA: Genes, Genomes, and Society, with an introduction, afterword, and annotations by Walter B. Gratzer, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press (Cold Spring Harbor, NY), 2000, revised edition with three new essays by the author, 2001.

Genes, Girls, and Gamow: After the Double Helix (memoir), Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 2001.

(With Andrew Berry) DNA: The Secret of Life, Knopf (New York, NY), 2003.

Also author, with others, of The Molecular Biology of the Cell, 1983, 2nd edition, 1989. Author of forewords, Arnold O. Beckman: 100 Years of Excellence by Arnold Thackray, Chemical Heritage Foundation, 2000; and The Road to Stockholm: Nobel Prizes, Science, and Scientists by Istvan Hargittai, Oxford University Press, 2002. Also author of scientific papers and contributor to abstracts of professional meetings and symposia. Watson promoted the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2003, in Science, October 31, 2003.

Some of Watson's work has been translated into German and Spanish.

ADAPTATIONS: An abridged version of DNA: The Secret of Life was recorded for Random House Audio, 2003.

WORK IN PROGRESS: Collaborated on a five-part series on DNA, "The Secret of Life," for broadcast on the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS).

SIDELIGHTS: By the age of twenty-five, James D. Watson had already earned both his Ph.D. and a place in the annals of science. At Cambridge University, he and his somewhat older British colleagues, physicist/biologist Francis H.C. Crick and biochemist Maurice H.F. Wilkins, devised the now-famous double-helical, or "spiral staircase," model of the molecular structure of DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid)—the substance that transmits genetic data from one generation to the next—and postulated its method of duplicating and conveying genetic information. For their groundbreaking work, which was first published by Watson and Crick in the British scientific journal Nature on May 30, 1953, and which has been called the most important biochemical breakthrough of the twentieth century, the three men shared the 1962 Nobel Prize in medicine and physiology.

In terms of competitive motivation, the discovery of the double-helical construction of DNA involved the research of scientists around the world, as Watson relates in The Double Helix: A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA. Watson chronicles the activities involved in the discovery, including such non-scientific elements as personality interaction, recreation, and ambition. In addition to describing the actual scientific work performed toward the discovery of DNA, Watson explores much of the "behind the scenes" events and occurrences that transpired during the discovery process, some of it unflattering to other scientists. Due to its personal content and subsequent negative reaction from many members of the scientific community, The Double Helix encountered difficulties in finding a publisher. When Harvard University Press was initially approached, Watson's colleagues Crick and Wilkins refused to sign a release for the book's publication. Crick even threatened litigation, and after numerous legal maneuverings and consultations with other professionals, Harvard president Nathan Pusey ordered the press to drop the book. Undaunted, Watson submitted his book to Atheneum, which published a small printing, as did Atlantic Monthly. The book eventually became a bestseller despite the controversy.

P.B. Medawar predicted in 1968 in the New York Review of Books that The Double Helix "will be an enormous success, and deserves to be so—a classic in the sense that it will go on being read…. Many of the things Watson says about the people in his story will offend them, but his own artless candor excuses him, for he betrays in himself faults graver than those he professes to discern in others." A reviewer for the Times Literary Supplement observed that the book "does indeed show us, if it really needs showing, that scientists are human; but it also shows us that James D. Watson is more human than most."

Robert K. Merton noted in the New York Times Book Review that the book "provides for the scientist and the general reader alike a fascinating case-history in the psychology and sociology of science as it describes the events that led up to one of the great biological discoveries of our time. I know of nothing quite like it in all the literature about scientists at work." New York Times critic Elliot Fremont-Smith thought The Double Helix "is a thrilling book from beginning to end—delightful, often funny, vividly observant, full of suspense and mounting tension, and so directly candid about the brilliant and abrasive personalities and institutions involved and the folkways, noble and eccentric, of scientists, that it has already stirred up a hornet's nest of controversy and miffed feelings." A Times Literary Supplement reviewer maintained that "the book is vividly written; it has flashes of wit and of insight; and it succeeds remarkably well in creating the suspense that a good de-tective story requires." Nation contributor J. Bronowski commented that The Double Helix contains "a quality of innocence and absurdity that children have when they tell a fairy story. The style is shy and sly, bumbling and irreverent, artless and good-humored and mischievous." Watson authored a second autobiography in 2001, Genes, Girls, and Gamow: After the Double Helix, which tells of his life, both personal and scientific, after the discovery of DNA.

The mid-1970s saw the emergence of early concerns about the safety and ethics of gene cloning, and Watson's position as a codiscoverer of DNA situated him as an expert in the possible ramifications of his research. He stated publicly that genetic engineering carried no risks, in the face of public fears that recombinant DNA experiments could accidentally produce some mutated, rogue organism, which might then be inadvertently released from a laboratory with potentially damaging results to humanity. Scientists placed a moratorium on biogenetic research, with eventual government safety regulations implemented. The persuasive arguments of scientists such as Watson combined with experiments in gene cloning research have resulted in the relaxation of federal guidelines and gradual acceptance of the safety of bioengineering. The DNA Story: A Documentary History of Gene Cloning, written by Watson and John Tooze, "is a collection of speeches, papers, letters and newspaper clippings about the genetic engineering debate and its various political and scientific manifestations," Lee Dembart reported in the Los Angeles Times Book Review. Dembart suggested that "if Watson and Tooze had presented private letters and other heretofore unknown material, their book would be more welcome." Washington Post Book World reviewer Rae Goodell noted, however, that "the very premise that recombinant DNA technology is safe, and that concerns have all but disappeared, is far from universally accepted among biologists, policy-makers, and observers…. Furthermore, Watson and Tooze largely ignore the broader, long-range ethical and political problems posed by DNA technology as it begins to have a major impact on the economy, agriculture, energy supplies and the treatment of human diseases and shortcomings."

The science surrounding genetics has continued to evolve and Watson has continued to be one of the most prominent people in the field, serving for a brief time as the director of the Human Genome Project of the National Institutes of Health and enjoying a long tenure as head of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, which provides education in molecular biology. Genetic science has also been controversial, as witnessed by debates over genetic manipulation and cloning at the beginning of the twenty-first century.

Watson deals with controversies from the 1970s and succeeding decades, as well as scientific advances and his career experiences, in A Passion for DNA: Genes, Genomes, and Society, a collection of thirty years' worth of essays. Of the fears about recombinant DNA, he writes, "in retrospect, recombinant DNA may rank as the safest revolutionary technology ever developed," having failed to cause the disease or environmental damage predicted by its detractors. He also discusses newer fears, especially those that genetic manipulation could be employed to create a sort of master race or that testing for genetic predisposition for certain disorders could be used to invade people's privacy or discriminate against them. He issues a call "to keep government out of genetic decisions, and leave matters to the individuals involved," as Mark Ridley related in the Times Literary Supplement, but endorses a role for government in preventing forced genetic testing. Furthermore, Watson details his general beliefs about the politics of genetics. "He disagrees with right-wing religious critics, who dislike genetics for interfering with God's work and encouraging abortions," Ridley reported. "He also disagrees with the fork-tongued ideologues of the Left, who argue that genes are relatively unimportant in human affairs." As David W. Hodo remarked in the Journal of the American Medical Association: "Watson comes across as generally liberal but not left wing…. [His] historical writings on 'eugenic horrors,' not only in Nazi Germany but in this country, address the reality of science (or pseudoscience) run amok." James F. Crow, a contributor to the Quarterly Review of Biology, stated that "there is much good biology and history in this book," which is written "in Watson's frank, uninhibited style." Ridley found the essays "highly readable" and "non-technical in style"; he noted that "Watson knows how to tell a story." Hodo concluded: "A Passion for DNA is one of the finest books on science that I have ever read … a scientific primer, history lesson, review of microbiology, study of mentoring, and most fascinating memoir, absorbable in multiple brief essays, fulfilling Dr. Watson's desire to write like a novelist."

After fifty years, the discovery of DNA still fascinates, though its full significance might not yet be understood, suggests Watson in DNA: The Secret of Life, which he coauthored with Andrew Berry. The book begins with the race to discover DNA's structure, and following chapters recount the revolutionary changes in biology that ensued from the decoding of the genetic alphabet and grammar. The chapter "Out of Africa" outlines the impact of DNA analysis on what we know about human evolution and migrations, and "Genetic Fingerprinting" tells the story of how DNA analysis has entered the le-gal system. Though Watson believes genetic knowledge and gene manipulation have hazards, they are small ones, and hold the key to providing solutions to most social problems. To that end, he urges readers to shed their fear of genetic technology and submit their DNA samples to the government.

In his review of DNA: The Secret of Life in American Scientist, Jon Beckwith found that the work is "a rich source both for budding scientists and for the general public interested in science." Washington Post Book World contributor David Brown wrote that thanks to genetic research we've embarked on a steep road to self-discovery, and "for people who want to get the most out of the trip, Watson's book is a good place to start." University of Chicago professor of ecology Jerry Coyne remarked in the New York Times that in spite of his excessive DNA chauvinism, which would have us provide our DNA to public databanks, "we are lucky that a major architect of a revolution in biology should also be blessed with, or perhaps born with, the ability to bring that revolution to life in such an arresting way."



Bankston, John, Francis Crick and James Watson: Pioneers in DNA Research (juvenile biography), Mitchell Lane (Bear, DE), 2002.

Devine, Elizabeth, and others, editors, Thinkers of the Twentieth Century: A Biographical, Bibliographical, and Critical Dictionary, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1983.

McElheny, Victor, Watson and DNA: Making a Scientific Revolution, Perseus (Cambridge, MA), 2003.


American Scientist, July-August, 2003, review of DNA: The Secret of Life, and Watson and DNA: Making a Scientific Revolution, by Victor McElheny, p. 354; May-June, 2004, review of Inspiring Science: Jim Watson and the Age of DNA, edited by John R. In-glis, p. 286.

Book World, February 18, 1968.

Business Week, July 19, 2004, Catherine Arnst, "The Great Innovators," p. 20.

Chicago Tribune, January 24, 1981; January 30, 2004, William Mullen, "His Chicago DNA: Genetic Pioneer James Watson Recalls a South Side Education," p. 81.

Choice, October, 2003, review of DNA: The Secret of Life, p. 354.

Christian Century, August 21, 1968, p. 1065.

Hudson Review, summer, 1968, pp. 396-398.

Journal of the American Medical Association, January 17, 2001, David W. Hodo, review of A Passion for DNA: Genes, Genomes, and Society, p. 342.

Library Journal, March 1, 2004, review of DNA: The Secret of Life, p. 39.

Life, March 1, 1968, p. 8.

Los Angeles Times Book Review, February 7, 1982, p. 13.

Nation, March 18, 1968, pp. 381-382.

Nature, October 25, 2001, Horace Freeland Judson, review of Girls, Genes, and Gamow: After the Double Helix, p. 775.

New England Journal of Medicine, August 3, 2000, Donald A. Chambers, review of A Passion for DNA, p. 370.

New Yorker, April 13, 1968, pp. 172-182.

New York Review of Books, March 28, 1968, pp. 3-5.

New York Times, February 19, 1968; April 10, 1983.

New York Times Book Review, February 25, 1968, section 7, pp. 1, 41-42, 45; December 1, 1968; February 24, 2002, Barbara Ehrenreich, "Double Helix, Single Guy," p. 6; June 15, 2003, review of DNA: The Secret of Life, p. 7, 11.

New York Times Magazine, August 18, 1968, pp. 26-27, 29, 34, 41, 44; February 3, 2002, Amy Barrett, "Weird Science" (interview), p. 9.

Omni, May, 1984.

Quarterly Review of Biology, June, 2001, James F. Crow, review of A Passion for DNA, p. 232; March, 2004, Elof Axel Carlson, review of DNA: The Secret of Life, p. 51.

Saturday Review, March 16, 1968, pp. 36, 86.

Science, October 7, 1983; April 18, 2003, review of DNA: The Secret of Life, p. 432.

Technology and Culture, April, 2004, Neil M. Cowan, review of Watson and DNA, by Victor K. McEl-heny, p. 457.

Time, February 23, 1968, p. 98; October 3, 1983, p. 67.

Times Literary Supplement, May 23, 1968; August 3, 2001, Mark Ridley, "Gene Genie," p. 6; October 19, 2001, Sydney Brenner, review of Girls, Genes, and Gamow, p. 6.

Virginia Quarterly Review, spring, 2004, Edward J. Larson, "Wonderful Life," p. 72.

Washington Post Book World, January 24, 1982, pp. 1-2; May 18, 2003, David Brown, "Code Breakers," review of DNA: The Secret of Life, p. T10.