DNA 50

About the scientists: Watson

James Watson
James Dewey Watson was born in Chicago, Illinois, on 6 April 1928. Watson attended Horace Mann Grammar School and South Shore High School in Chicago. He received a tuition scholarship to the University of Chicago, and in 1943 entered their experimental four-year college.

In 1947, he received a BSc in Zoology and went on to receive a fellowship for graduate study in Zoology at Indiana University in Bloomington, where he received his PhD in Zoology in 1950. His PhD thesis was a study of the effect of hard X-rays on bacteriophage multiplication.

For the academic year from 1950-51, Watson spent his first postdoctoral year in Copenhagen as a Merck Fellow of the National Research Council. He worked with bacterial viruses, attempting to study the fate of DNA of infecting virus particles. In 1951, at a symposium in Naples, he met Maurice Wilkins and saw for the first time the X-ray diffraction pattern of crystalline DNA. This greatly stimulated him to change the direction of his research toward the structural chemistry of nucleic acids end proteins. He moved to work at the Cavendish Laboratory in 1952.

He soon met Francis Crick and discovered their common interest in solving the DNA structure. They thought it should be possible to correctly guess its structure, given both the experimental evidence at King's College plus careful examination of the possible stereochemical configurations of polynucleotide chains. Their first serious effort, in autumn 1951, was unsatisfactory. Their second effort based, upon more experimental evidence and better appreciation of the nucleic acid literature, resulted, early in March 1953, in the proposal of the complementary double-helical configuration.

At the same time, Watson was experimentally investigating the structure of tobacco mosaic virus, using X-ray diffraction techniques. His aim was to see if its chemical subunits were helically arranged was achieved in June 1952, when use of the Cavendish's newly constructed rotating anode X-ray tubes allowed an unambiguous demonstration of the helical construction of the virus.

From 1953-55, Watson was at the California Institute of Technology as Senior Research Fellow in Biology. There he collaborated with Alexander Rich in X-ray diffraction studies of RNA. In 1955-56 he was back in the Cavendish, again working with Crick. During this visit they published several papers on the general principles of virus construction.

Watson moved to Harvard in 1955 and became Professor in 1961. He left Harvard in 1976 to become director of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, New York. In 1988 he was appointed Associate Director for Human Genome Research of the National Institutes of Health, and in 1989 Director of the National Center for Human Genome Research (NCHGR) at the National Institutes of Health. During this time Watson was a key figure in the launch of the Human Genome Project. He left the NCHGR in 1992. In 1994 he became president of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory.

image: The Nobel Foundation