Photo: Cold Spring Harbor Laboratoryderivative work: Jan Arkesteijn / Public domain
Born: April 6, 1928
Age: 91 years
Born Place: Chicago, Illinois, United States
Spouse: Elizabeth Watson (m. 1968)
Spouse(s): Elizabeth Watson (née Lewis) (m. 1968)
- DNA structure
- Molecular biology
- Albert Lasker Award for Basic Medical Research (1960)
- Member of the National Academy of Sciences (1962)
- Nobel Prize (1962)
- John J. Carty Award (1971)
- Foreign Member of the Royal Society (1981)
- EMBO Membership (1985)
- Copley Medal (1993)
- Lomonosov Gold Medal (1994)
James Dewey Watson KBE (born April 6, 1928) is an American molecular biologist, geneticist and zoologist. In 1953, he co-authored with Francis Crick the academic paper proposing the double helix structure of the DNA molecule. Watson, Crick and Maurice Wilkins were awarded the 1962 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine “for their discoveries concerning the molecular structure of nucleic acids and its significance for information transfer in living material”. In subsequent years, it has been recognized that Watson and his colleagues did not properly attribute colleague Rosalind Franklin for her original discovery of the double helix structure.
Watson earned degrees at the University of Chicago (BS, 1947) and Indiana University (PhD, 1950). Following a post-doctoral year at the University of Copenhagen with Herman Kalckar and Ole Maaløe, Watson worked at the University of Cambridge’s Cavendish Laboratory in England, where he first met his future collaborator Francis Crick. From 1956 to 1976, Watson was on the faculty of the Harvard University Biology Department, promoting research in molecular biology.
From 1968 Watson served as director of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL), greatly expanding its level of funding and research. At CSHL, he shifted his research emphasis to the study of cancer, along with making it a world-leading research center in molecular biology. In 1994, he started as president and served for 10 years. He was then appointed chancellor, serving until he resigned in 2007 after making comments claiming a genetic link between intelligence and race. In 2019, following the broadcast of a documentary in which Watson reiterated his views on race and genetics, CSHL revoked his honorary titles and severed all ties with him.
Watson has written many science books, including the textbook Molecular Biology of the Gene (1965) and his bestselling book The Double Helix (1968). Between 1988 and 1992, Watson was associated with the National Institutes of Health, helping to establish the Human Genome Project, which completed the task of mapping the human genome in 2003.
EARLY LIFE AND EDUCATION
James D. Watson was born in Chicago on April 6, 1928, as the only son of Jean (Mitchell) and James D. Watson, a businessman descended mostly from colonial English immigrants to America. His mother’s father, Lauchlin Mitchell, a tailor, was from Glasgow, Scotland, and her mother, Lizzie Gleason, was the child of parents from County Tipperary, Ireland. Raised Catholic, he later described himself as “an escapee from the Catholic religion.” Watson said, “The luckiest thing that ever happened to me was that my father didn’t believe in God.”
Watson grew up on the south side of Chicago and attended public schools, including Horace Mann Grammar School and South Shore High School. He was fascinated with bird watching, a hobby shared with his father, so he considered majoring in ornithology. Watson appeared on Quiz Kids, a popular radio show that challenged bright youngsters to answer questions. Thanks to the liberal policy of University president Robert Hutchins, he enrolled at the University of Chicago, where he was awarded a tuition scholarship, at the age of 15.
After reading Erwin Schrödinger’s book, What Is Life? in 1946, Watson changed his professional ambitions from the study of ornithology to genetics. Watson earned his BS degree in Zoology from the University of Chicago in 1947. In his autobiography, Avoid Boring People, Watson described the University of Chicago as an “idyllic academic institution where he was instilled with the capacity for critical thought and an ethical compulsion not to suffer fools who impeded his search for truth”, in contrast to his description of later experiences. In 1947 Watson left the University of Chicago to become a graduate student at Indiana University, attracted by the presence at Bloomington of the 1946 Nobel Prize winner Hermann Joseph Muller, who in crucial papers published in 1922, 1929, and in the 1930s had laid out all the basic properties of the heredity molecule that Schrödinger presented in his 1944 book. He received his PhD degree from Indiana University in 1950; Salvador Luria was his doctoral advisor.
In 2014, Watson published a paper in The Lancet suggesting that biological oxidants may have a different role than is thought in diseases including diabetes, dementia, heart disease and cancer. For example, type 2 diabetes is usually thought to be caused by oxidation in the body that causes inflammation and kills off pancreatic cells. Watson thinks the root of that inflammation is different: “a lack of biological oxidants, not an excess”, and discusses this in detail. One critical response was that the idea was neither new nor worthy of merit, and that The Lancet published Watson’s paper only because of his name. Other scientists have expressed their support for his hypothesis and have proposed that it can also be expanded to why a lack of oxidants can result in cancer and its progression.
In 2014, Watson sold his Nobel prize medal to raise money; part of the funds raised by the sale went to support scientific research. The medal sold at auction at Christie’s in December 2014 for US$4.1 million. Watson intended to contribute the proceeds to conservation work in Long Island and to funding research at Trinity College, Dublin. He was the first living Nobel recipient to auction a medal. The medal was later returned to Watson by the purchaser, Alisher Usmanov.
Watson is an atheist. In 2003, he was one of 22 Nobel Laureates who signed the Humanist Manifesto.
Marriage and family
Watson married Elizabeth Lewis in 1968. They have two sons, Rufus Robert Watson (b. 1970) and Duncan James Watson (b. 1972). Watson sometimes talks about his son Rufus, who suffers from schizophrenia, seeking to encourage progress in the understanding and treatment of mental illness by determining how genetics contributes to it.
AWARDS AND HONOURS
- Albert Lasker Award for Basic Medical Research, 1960
- Benjamin Franklin Medal for Distinguished Achievement in the Sciences (2001)
- Copley Medal of the Royal Society, 1993
- CSHL Double Helix Medal Honoree, 2008
- Eli Lilly Award in Biological Chemistry, 1960
- EMBO Membership in 1985
- Gairdner Foundation International Award, 2002
- Honorary Member of Royal Irish Academy, 2005
- Honorary Fellow, the Hastings Center, an independent bioethics research institution
- Honorary Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire (KBE), 2002
- Irish America Hall of Fame, inducted March 2011
- John J. Carty Award in molecular biology from the National Academy of Sciences
- Liberty Medal, 2000
- Lomonosov Gold Medal, 1994
- Lotos Club Medal of Merit, 2004
- National Medal of Science, 1997
- Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, 1962
- Othmer Gold Medal (2005)
- Presidential Medal of Freedom, 1977
- Golden Plate Award of the American Academy of Achievement, 1986