Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory

Giants in genomics: James Watson

James Watson and his British colleague Francis Crick discovered the double helix structure of DNA. For this fundamental finding James, Francis and Maurice Wilkins were awarded the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1962. 

James Watson was born in Chicago in 1928 and from a very early age showed great academic ability and a keen interest in bird watching. At 12 years old he was one of US radio’s high-IQ Quiz Kids and by age 15 he had won a scholarship to study at the University of Chicago under the gifted youngster programme. By 1950 (aged just 22) he had completed a Bachelor of Science degree and a PhD in zoology.

By 1950 (aged just 22) James Watson had completed a Bachelor of Science degree and a PhD in zoology.

It was at the University of Copenhagen where James first began to investigate the structure of DNA and the secrets that our genes hold. It was on a visit to the Zoological Station at Naples in 1951 where he met Maurice Wilkins and was introduced to a technique called X-ray crystallography that can be used to visualise the structures of molecules.

James was always interested in the work of scientists at the University of Cambridge.

James was always interested in the work of scientists at the University of Cambridge, so later on that year he moved his research to the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge. It was here that James first met the British biophysicist Francis Crick, then a PhD student, who shared his aims to figure out the structure of DNA. Soon after meeting, they decided to join forces.

In 1953, James Watson and Francis Crick put forward their hypothesis that DNA had a double helix structure.

Their first attempt to identify the structure of DNA was not successful, however, in 1953 they put forward their hypothesis that DNA had a double helix structure. Their model also highlighted how the DNA molecule is able to copy itself. These results were published later that year in Nature. They answered a number of fundamental genetics questions and to this day the discovery is considered one of the great scientific advances of all time.

James Watson (centre) with Francis Crick (right) and Maclyn McCarty (left; geneticist who discovered DNA carried genetic information).
Image credit: Marjorie McCarty/PLOS Biology

James’ book The Double Helix provides a memoir of the years leading up to the discovery and it has had a considerable and positive effect on the way the public perceive scientists. However, the discovery was not without controversy.

James’ book The Double Helix provides a memoir of the years leading up to the discovery.

At the same time as James and Francis were carrying out their research to discover the structure of DNA, Rosalind Franklin was also using X-ray crystallography in the hope of making the same breakthrough. She and her PhD student, Raymond Gosling, produced an X-ray image of DNA that allowed them to draw conclusions about the double helix shape of DNA. Her data went unpublished but was shown to James and Francis, without her knowledge, by Maurice Wilkins. This provided evidence crucial to James and Francis’ discovery but they barely acknowledged her contribution when it came to publishing the results. Rosalind then tragically died before she could get any of the recognition she deserved.

In 1955, James moved back to the states to teach biology and conduct research at Harvard University. From 1968, James took over the directorship of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. During his 36 years there (he retired in 2004) he helped to develop the laboratory into one of the world’s premier research facilities in cancer, neurobiology and molecular genetics.

James Watson at a conference in Houston in 2012.
Image credit: Chemical Heritage Foundation/Douglas A. Lockard.

James was also heavily involved in one of the largest biology projects ever attempted, the Human Genome Project.

Not only did James make one of the most fundamental discoveries in the history of genetics, he was also heavily involved in one of the largest biology projects ever attempted, the Human Genome Project. From 1988 to 1992 he led the Human Genome Project at the US National Institutes of Health (NIH). He was forced to resign from this position, however, after differences in opinion with the National Institutes of Health director on the topic of patenting genetic material.

James remained involved in the Human Genome Project up to its completion in 2003. He later became the second person ever to have his genome sequenced in an on-going effort to encourage early detection and prevention of diseases. 

This page was last updated on 2016-06-13