James Watson

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Watson, James


James Dewey Watson was the codiscoverer of the structure of DNA. He has also made major contributions to research in genetics and molecular biology as an administrator, and has written widely read and influential books for both academic and nonscience audiences.

Early Life and Training

Watson was born April 6, 1928, in Chicago, Illinois. He showed his brilliance early, finishing high school in two years and appearing as one of the original "Quiz Kids," on a popular 1940s radio show of the same name. He was graduated from the University of Chicago in 1947 with a B.S. in zoology, reflecting an early love of birds. He did his doctoral work at Indiana University in genetics, and earned a Ph.D. in 1950. He was drawn to Indiana by the chance to work with Hermann Joseph Muller, who had been one of Thomas Hunt Morgan's associates in the famous "fly room" at Columbia University, and who had received a Nobel Prize for his discoveries in genetics. Watson's thesis adviser and principal mentor was Salvador Luria, who, along with Max Delbrück, had established bacterial genetics as the experimental system in which most of the major discoveries in molecular biology were to be made. Watson's thesis was on the effect of X rays on the multiplication of a bacterial virus, called phage.

Watson continued to study phage as a postdoctoral student in Copenhagen, Denmark where he worked from 1950 to 1951. While there, he met Maurice Wilkins, and for the first time saw the X-ray diffraction images generated in Wilkins's lab by Rosalind Franklin. Watson quickly decided to turn his attention to discovering the structure of important biological molecules, including DNA and proteins. By that time, DNA had been shown to be the genetic molecule, and it was believed that it somehow carried the instructions for making proteins, which actually perform most of the work in a cell.

The Structure of DNA

Luria arranged for Watson to continue his work at the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge, England, which was a center for the study of biomolecular structure, and Watson arrived there in late 1951. At the Cavendish, he met Francis Crick, who, after training in physics, had turned his attention to similar structural questions. The two hit it off, and began collaborating on the structure of DNA.

Watson and Crick approached the problem by building models of the four nucleotides known to make up DNA. Each was composed of a sugar called deoxyribose, a phosphate group, and one of four bases, called ade-nine, thymine, cytosine, and guanine. They knew the sugars and phosphates alternated to form a chain, with the bases projecting off to the side. The X-ray images they had seen suggested the structure was a helix, and offered more information about dimensions as well. They also knew that the biochemist Erwin Chargaff had discovered that the amounts of adenine and thymine in a cell's DNA were equal, as were the amounts of cytosine and guanine.

After several failed attempts, more analysis of the X-ray images, and a fortuitous conversation with a biochemist who corrected one of their hypothesized base structures, they developed the correct model. The helix is formed from two opposing strands of sugar phosphates, while the bases project into the center. Weak bonding (called hydrogen bonding ) between bases holds them together. The key, as Watson and Crick discovered, was that the hydrogen bonds work best when adenine pairs with thymine, and guanine with cytosine, thus explaining Chargaff's ratios. The structure immediately suggested a replication mechanism, in which each side serves as the template for the formation of a new copy of the opposing side, and they speculated, correctly, that the sequence of the bases was a code for the sequence of amino acids in proteins. They published their results in 1953, and received the Nobel Prize for physiology and medicine for it 1962, along with Wilkins (Franklin by then had died, and was therefore ineligible for the prize).

Later Accomplishments

Watson remained active in the study of DNA and RNA for a number of years after the publication of the DNA structure. He joined the faculty of Harvard University in 1955, and remained there until 1976. During this time, he wrote an influential textbook, Molecular Biology of the Gene, and an enormously popular (and colorful) account of his and Crick's discovery, called The Double Helix.

In 1968 Watson became the director of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory on Long Island, New York, and he became president of the laboratory in 1994, a position he continues to hold. Watson revitalized this laboratory, helping it become one of the premier genetics research institutions in the world. His organizational drive was also called upon in 1988, when he spearheaded the launch of the U.S. Human Genome Project, dedicated to determining the sequence of the entire three billion bases in the genome. He headed the project from 1988 to 1992.

Throughout his career, Watson has invariably been described as "brash," reflecting his capacity to take on big projects and big ideas, and his enthusiasm for making daring, occasionally outrageous predictions about the causes of an unexplained phenomenon or the direction science will take. Explaining this tendency in relation to his work on DNA, Watson wrote, "A potential key to the secret of life was impossible to push out of my mind. It was certainly better to imagine myself becoming famous than maturing into a stifled academic who had never risked a thought."

see also Crick, Francis; Delbrück, Max; DNA; DNA Structure and Function, History; Morgan, Thomas Hunt; Muller, Hermann; Nucleotide.

Richard Robinson


Judson, Horace F. The Eight Days of Creation, expanded edition. Cold Spring Harbor, NY: Cold Spring Harbor Press, 1996.

Watson, James. The Double Helix: A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA. New York: New American Library, 1991.

. Genes, Girls, and Gamow: After the Double Helix. New York: Knopf, 2002.

Internet Resource

"Biographical Sketch of James Dewey Watson." <http://nucleus.cshl.org/CSHLlib/archives/jdwbio.htm>.

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Co-discoverer of the molecular structure of DNA, James Watson (b. 1928) was born in Chicago on April 6, and became a controversial figure in debates about the social and ethical implications of genetic research. Watson received his Ph.D. in zoology from Indiana University in 1950. His partnership with Maurice Wilkins and Francis Crick led to the 1953 discovery of the complementary double-helix configuration of the DNA molecule, for which the three researchers shared the 1962 Nobel Prize in physiology and medicine. In 1968 Watson was named director and in 1994 president of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, which he shaped into a leading center of research on the genetic basis of cancer. In 1988 Watson was appointed Associate Director for Human Genome Research at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), where he initiated the Ethical, Legal, and Social Implications (ELSI) program as part of the Human Genome Project (HGP).

Although Watson continued his research, including important work on the function of messenger RNA (mRNA), his career shifted toward administration and the promotion of science (McElheny 2003). In these capacities, he confronted some of the political and ethical dilemmas born of his co-discovery of "the key to life." The subsequent revolution in genetics raised questions about the proper use of this new knowledge. Indeed, Watson on occasion made controversial and sometimes-contradictory statements on several of these issues, including recombinant DNA (rDNA) research, reproductive rights, and germline genetic therapy (see Watson 2000).

During congressional testimony in 1971, Watson expressed strong concerns about genetic engineering and reproductive technologies, and in the mid-1970s he played a role in establishing a moratorium on certain kinds of rDNA research. However, he later came to regret this position and even called critics of the research "a bizarre collection of kooks, sad incompetents, and down-right shits" (Beckwith 2003, p. 357). Watson defended a cornucopian attitude about the promises of genetic technologies to solve societal problems and dismissed public fears as irrational, Luddite paranoia.

In this regard, two of his strongest convictions about the use of genetic technologies were his libertarian ideology and a desire to engineer the human genome. First, he argued that society should not impose rules on individuals concerning their use of genetic knowledge. People should be allowed to make those decisions in private, especially women who are faced with difficult reproductive choices. Second, he maintained that germline gene therapy, despite its similarity to morally reproachable governmental eugenics programs, deserves serious consideration as a personal option because of the potential for human betterment. In other words, "If we could make better human beings by knowing how to add genes, why shouldn't we?" (Wheeler 2003). For Watson, the genome is a cruel limitation on the vast possibilities that scientists could create by manipulating human DNA.

Watson's most lasting legacy in the realm of the politics of science is his creation of the ELSI in the HGP carried out by the National Center for Human Genome Research Institute (NCHGI). In an "unprecedented experiment in American science policy," Watson unilaterally set aside 3 to 5 percent of the HGP budget to support ELSI studies of new advances in genetics with the goals of identifying and defining major issues and developing initial policy options (Juengst 1996).

It is difficult to decipher Watson's intentions in creating the ELSI program. He was quoted as saying, "I wanted a group that would talk and talk and never get anything done" (Andrews 1999, p. 206). Yet he also claimed, "Doing the Genome Project in the real world means thinking about [social impacts] from the start, so that science and society can pull together to optimize the benefits of this new knowledge for human welfare and opportunity" (Watson and Juengst 1992, p. xvi).

Most likely, Watson viewed the ELSI program as a form of enlightened scientific self-interest. It could create a social environment conducive to genetics research by aiding in the development of policies that prevent people from being harmed by the use of genetic information and technologies. In Watson's view, genetics research produces inherently valuable knowledge. As Juengst explains, "The question that the ELSI program addresses is the virtuous genome scientist's professional ethical question: 'What should I know in order to conduct my (otherwise valuable) work in a socially responsible way?'" (1996, p. 68). The societal buffer that the program creates may explain why Watson referred to the creation of the ELSI program as one of his top accomplishments. Although Watson created it on a whim, the ELSI program has had a lasting impact on the practice of science as similar programs are becoming common aspects of scientific research.


SEE ALSO Genetic Research and Technology; Human Genome Organization.


Andrews, Lori B. (1999). The Clone Age: Adventures in the New World of Reproductive Technology. New York: Henry Holt. Memoir touches on several of the most pressing issues in reproductive technology.

Beckwith, Jon. (2003). "Double Take on the Double Helix." American Scientist 91: 354–358. Review of DNA: The Secret of Life and Watson and DNA: Making a Scientific Revolution.

Juengst, Eric T. (1996). "Self-Critical Federal Science? The Ethics Experiment Within the U.S. Human Genome Project." Social Philosophy and Policy 13(2): 63–96. Comprehensive analysis of the ELSI program; surveys various critiques of the program and makes a case that its strength as a policy mechanism lies in its decentralized "un-commission" design.

McElheny, Victor K. (2003). Watson and DNA: Making a Scientific Revolution. Cambridge, MA: Perseus. Authoritative biography of Watson, covering his scientific accomplishments, his impact on the scientific community, and his political and ethical views about the use of genetics in society.

Watson, James D., and Eric T. Juengst. (1992). "Doing Science in the Real World: The Role of Ethics, Law, and the Social Sciences in the Human Genome Project." In Gene Mapping: Using Law and Ethics as Guides, ed. George Annas and Sherman Elias. New York: Oxford University Press. The editors introduce the book by surveying the questions raised by new knowledge in the field of genetics and articulates the role of the ELSI program in the HGP.

Watson, James D. (2000). "Genome Ethics." New Perspectives Quarterly 17(4): 48–50. Outlines Watson's views on the ethics of genome research and demonstrates his strong materialist account of human origins and the implications of this philosophy for decisions regarding reproduction and the use of genetic technologies.

Wheeler, Timothy. (2003). "Miracle Molecule, 50 Years On." Baltimore Sun February 4, p. 8A. Surveys the implications of the discovery of DNA and Watson's life since then.


Watson, James D. (2000). "Genome Ethics." New Perspectives Quarterly 17(4): 48–50. Available from http://www.digitalnpq.org.

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Watson, James

American biologist

James Dewey Watson, American biologist, won the Nobel Prize in 1962 for the discoveries he made in molecular genetics, along with Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins.

Watson was born on April 6, 1928, in Chicago, Illinois, and was declared a child prodigy at an early age. Indeed, in his youth, he appeared on a television program called "Chicago Quiz Show."

Watson began his university studies at the age of fifteen at the University of Chicago, from which he graduated at nineteen. While in college, Watson was deeply affected by the writings of Erwin Schrodinger, who was among the first to articulate the concept of the gene. Watson received his doctoral degree in 1950 from Indiana University, after conducting research on bacterial viruses.

After receiving his Ph.D., Watson won a fellowship from the Merck Foundation and spent a year furthering his study of bacterial viruses in Copenhagen, Denmark. From Copenhagen, Watson moved on to Cambridge University, where he first met and collaborated with Frances Crick, a young British biophysicist.

In 1952, Watson and Crick began to investigate the molecular structure, and significance to genetics, of nucleic acids. The collaborators began by looking specifically at the earlier work done by Maurice Wilkins and Rosalind Franklin on X-ray crystallography analysis of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA), a substance that was already considered to make genes, the fundamental units of heredity.

Watson and Crick used Wilkins's and Franklin's data to create a three-dimensional model of the DNA molecule. Watson and Crick hoped that their model would agree with the chemical facts previously established about DNA; for example, that DNA consisted of phosphates, nitrogenous bases, and sugars. In addition, Wilkins's X-ray crystallography experiments had already determined many of the patterns by means of which such molecules were connected.

Watson and Crick tried out various ways of arranging model molecules in space, finally settling on the aptly named "double helix." Their model, afterward referred to as the Watson-Crick model, showed DNA as a twostranded twisted "helix." The two strands consisted of complementary pairs of nucleotide units. This model both matched chemical facts previously known about DNA, and provided a viable explanation for how DNA could replicate, and thus for how genetic information could pass from one generation to the next generation of living organisms.

Between 1956 and 1976, Watson ran a laboratory at Harvard University, where he also taught courses in biology. Additionally, in 1969 he was named director of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York State. In 1991, Watson became the first director of the Human Genome Project, established by a consortium of public agencies to sequence the entire human genome, but he later resigned over the issue of patenting human genes. Among his notable publications are Molecular Biology of the Gene (1965) and The Double Helix (1968).

see also Crick, Francis

Hanna Rose Shell


Crick, Francis. What Mad Pursuit? New York: Basic Books, 1988.

Sherborn, Victoria. James Watson and Francis Crick: Decoding the Secrets of DNA. Woodbridge, CT: Blackbirch Press, 1995.

Strathern, Paul. The Big Idea: Crick, Watson and DNA. New York: Anchor, 1997.

Watson, James. The Double Helix. New York: Norton Press, 1968.

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WATSON, James. British, b. 1936. Genres: Novels, Novellas/Short stories, Plays/Screenplays, Communications/Media, Education. Career: West Kent College of Further Education, senior lecturer in media, 1965-. Former journalist. Publications: Sign of the Swallow, 1967; The Bull Leapers, 1970; Gilbert Makepeace Lives!, 1972; Legion of the White Tiger, 1973; Liberal Studies in Further Education-An Informal Survey, 1973; The Freedom Tree, 1976; Venus Rising from the Sea, 1977; A Slight Insurrection, 1979; The Loneliness of a Long Distance Innovation: General Studies in a College of Further Education, 1980; What a Little Moonlight Can Do, 1982; Talking in Whispers, 1983; (with A. Hill) A Dictionary of Communication and Media Studies, 1984, rev. ed., 2003; What Is Communication Studies?, 1985; When Nobody Sees, 1987; Make Your Move (stories), 1988; No Surrender, 1990; Ticket to Prague, 1993; The Noisy Ducks of Buxlehude, 1993; Justice of the Dagger, 1997; Media Communication: An Introduction to Theory and Process, 1997, rev. ed., 2003; The Ghosts of Izieu, 2000; Banned! Tom Paine, This Was Your Life, 2003. Address: 9, Farmcombe Close, Tunbridge Wells, Kent TN2 5DG, England. Online address: [email protected]