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James Watson Biography: Co-Discoverer of DNA's Double Helix

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James Watson, one of the discoverers of the double helix.
Credit: National Library of Medicine

James Watson was a pioneer molecular biologist who is credited, along with Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins, with discovering the double helix structure of the DNA molecule. The trio won the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1962 for their work.

Early life

James Dewey Watson was born in Chicago, Ill., on April 6, 1928. He attended Horace Mann Grammar School and then South Shore High School. At the age of 15, he transferred to the University of Chicago in an experimental scholarship program for gifted youngsters. A lifelong interest in birds led him to study biology, and he was awarded his Bachelor of Science degree in zoology in 1947. He switched to genetics shortly after reading Erwin Schrodinger’s seminal book, "What is Life?"

After being turned down by the California Institute of Technology and Harvard, Watson won a scholarship to the University of Indiana for post-graduate study. In 1950, he was awarded his doctoral degree in zoology for his work on the effects of X-ray radiation on replication of bacteriophage viruses. From Indiana, Watson moved to Copenhagen, where he continued his virus research as a Merck Fellow of the National Research Council.

After attending a meeting at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York, where he heard the results of the Hershey/Chase research, Watson became convinced that DNA was the molecule responsible for transmitting genetic information. He became fascinated with the thought that, if the structure of the DNA molecule were understood, it would be possible to deduce how genetic information is passed between cells. His virus research did not interest him as much as this new line of inquiry.

In the spring of 1951, he met Maurice Wilkins at a conference in Naples. Wilkins was showing the results of the first attempts to use X-ray diffraction to photograph DNA molecules. Watson, excited by Wilkins’ results, moved to England in the fall. He went to work at Cavendish Laboratory where he began working with Francis Crick.

Early attempts

Watson and Crick decided to use a model-building approach to try to discern the molecular structure of the DNA molecule. Both were convinced that understanding the molecular geometry would be central to discovering how DNA could transmit genetic information from parent to daughter cells. The men understood that discovering the structure of the DNA molecule would be a major scientific breakthrough, and they knew they were in competition with other scientists, such as Linus Pauling, who were also working on DNA.

Watson and Crick had difficulty with their first attempts to build a DNA model. Neither man had a degree in chemistry, so they used standard chemistry texts to cut out cardboard models of chemical bonding configurations. A visiting graduate student pointed out that new information, not yet corrected in the text books, showed that Watson was using one of his cardboard chemical bonds backwards. About this time, Watson attended a lecture given by Rosalind Franklin at nearby Kings College. He apparently did not pay close attention.

In an essay in 1992, Watson wrote:

“I won’t say, but I heard it wrong. … I had heard her talk wrong and I thought there was very little water in it (DNA) and therefore it should be a very compact structure … We said ‘Well, there are four types of bases. There is no way we can stick in a regular sequence of bases in the center in a regular fashion.’”

As a result of Watson’s mistake, the men’s first attempt at building a DNA model was a notable failure. Watson and Crick built a three-stranded helix with the nitrogen bases on the outside of the structure. When they unveiled the model to colleagues, Franklin was scathing in her criticism. Her research results had plainly shown there were two forms of DNA, the wetter B form was clearly what Watson and Crick were trying to model, but they were trying to build the structure without the moisture she had shown was present. She pointed out that, when her research was applied correctly, the nitrogen bases belonged on the inside of the molecular structure. Embarrassed by this public failure, the director of the Cavendish lab told Watson and Crick to abandon their model-building efforts. Both men officially turned to other research but privately continued to think about the DNA problem.

Wilkins, who worked at Kings College with Franklin, was having some personality conflicts with her. Franklin was so unhappy at Kings that she had determined to move her research elsewhere. It is unclear how Wilkins came to be in possession of one of her best X-ray images of the DNA molecule; she may even have given it to him as she was clearing her office. It is clear though that he removed the image from the lab without Franklin’s permission and showed it to his friend, Watson, at Cavendish. In "The Double Helix," Watson wrote:

"The instant I saw the picture my mouth fell open and my pulse began to race. The pattern was unbelievably simpler than those obtained previously ('A Form'). Moreover, the black cross of reflections which dominated the picture could only arise from a helical structure."

Useful information

Watson and Crick used the new information to construct a new double-stranded helix model with the nitrogen bases paired A to T and C to G in the center. This base pairing immediately suggested to Crick that one side of the molecule could serve as a template to exactly replicate DNA sequences to pass on genetic information during cell reproduction. This second, successful model was unveiled in February 1951. In April 1953, they published their findings in the journal Nature, leading to presentation of the Nobel Prizein 1962. 

The Nobel Prize was shared among Watson, Crick and Wilkins. Nobel Prize rules state that it must be awarded to no more than three living scientists. Franklin had died of ovarian cancer in 1958. Wilkins did mention her in passing.

Watson went on to work with many others throughout the 1950s. His genius appears to be his ability to coordinate the work of different individuals and combine their results into new conclusions. In 1952, he used a rotating anode X-ray to demonstrate the helical construction of the tobacco mosaic virus. From 1953 to 1955, he worked with scientists at the California Institute of Technology to build a plausible model of RNA structure. From 1955 to 1956, he again worked with Crick on discovering principals of virus construction. In 1956, he moved to Harvard where he worked on RNA and protein synthesis.

In 1968, Watson published "The Double Helix," a somewhat sensationalized account of the DNA discovery. In the book, Watson used derogatory comments and rancorous personal descriptions of many people involved in the discovery, especially Franklin. Because of this, Harvard Press refused to print the book. However, it was commercially published and was a great success. In a later edition, Watson excused his treatment of Franklin by stating that he had been unaware of the pressures she faced as a woman doing scientific research in the 1950s. Watson’s greatest financial support came from publishing two textbooks – "Molecular Biology of the Gene" (1965) and "Molecular Biology of the Cell and Recombinant DNA" (updated 2002), which are still in print. In 2007, he published an autobiography, "Avoid Boring People, Lessons from a Life in Science."

Later work & controversies

In 1968, Watson became the director of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. At the time, the institution was struggling financially, but Watson proved to be very good at raising funds for research. Under Watson’s leadership, Cold Spring became one of the world’s leading institutions for research in molecular biology.

In 1990, Watson was named head of the Human Genome Project by the National Institute of Health. He used his fund-raising acumen to pilot the project through until 1992. He resigned over a conflict about patenting genetic information. Watson believed any commercial patents would only hinder the pure research being done by scientists working on the project.

His tenure at Cold Harbor ended abruptly. On Oct. 14, 2007, on his way to a conference in London he was questioned about world events. He responded by saying he was “inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa … all our social policies are based on the fact their intelligence is the same as ours — whereas the testing says not really.” He continued with the idea that Africa’s progress had been hindered by inferior genetic material. Public outcry over these remarks prompted Cold Spring to ask for his resignation. Watson later apologized and retracted his statements saying, “There is no scientific basis for such a belief.” In his resignation speech, Watson expressed his vision that “the final victory (over cancer and mental illness) is within our grasp."

Despite this public setback, Watson continues to enjoy making controversial statements even today.  At a meeting hosted in Seattle by the Allen Institute for Brain Science in September 2013, Watson again made controversy when he announced his belief that the increase in diagnosed hereditary disorders might be due to parents having children later in life.

“The older you are, the greater chance you will be carrying these (defective genes),” Watson said, also expressing his idea that genetic material should be collected from people no more than 15 years old for the later production of children via in-vitro fertilization. He believes this will reduce the chances that parents will have their lives “messed up” by the birth of a child with physical or mental disorders.

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