He’s been called a scientific genius, the founder of modern biology, and a biologist without equal. However, he’s also been called an intellectual thief, abrasive, and a womanizer. Whichever of these designations are true, James Watson (B.S. ’47) is universally recognized for helping to uncover what is perhaps the greatest biological discovery of the twentieth century.
In 1953, Watson, who will give a talk Monday in conjunction with the opening of a new exhibit in Crerar library in his honor, and fellow biologist Frances Crick discovered the structure of deoxyribonucleic acid, or DNA. Under the direction of famous chemist Maurice Wilkins at Cambridge University in England, Watson and Crick showed that DNA is a double helix composed of bonded chemical base pairs which are the physical manifestation of our genetic code.
The discovery made Watson a household name and gave him a share of the 1962 Nobel Prize in Chemistry with Crick and Wilkins. After winning the prize, Watson taught at Caltech. Now he is a professor of biology at Harvard as well as the president of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York, a scientific research institute.
Watson, born in Chicago in 1928, received his B.S. in Zoology in 1947 and then performed his graduate studies at Indiana University, where he received a graduate degree in 1950. He then attended a zoology conference in Naples, Italy, where he met Wilkins.
Watson attended the zoology conference in hopes of exploring how viruses inject their DNA into bacterial cells; however, when Wilkins introduced him to the x-ray diffraction patterns of DNA, through which the structure of DNA could be interpreted, Watson was hooked and joined Wilkins at the Cavendish laboratory at Cambridge in 1951, according to The Double Helix, the book Watson published describing the hunt for the structure of DNA.
While at the Cavendish labs, Watson worked closely with Rosalind Franklin, whose notes on x-ray diffraction provided much of the impetus for Watson and Crick’s double helix theory. Watson maintained in The Double Helix that Franklin made many key measurements and observations, but was unable to come up with the crucial link that revealed the molecule’s structure.
However, recent scholars have claimed that Watson marginalized Franklin’s role in his book, and some have even gone so far to suggest that Franklin happened on the theory before Watson, but he rushed the publication of the theory so as to be its first proponent. In her biography, Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA, Brenda Maddox said that Wilkins, who did not get along very well with Franklin, showed Watson some of Franklin’s best x-ray diffraction pictures without her knowledge, enabling them to reach the theory only shortly before Franklin would inevitably have come to it.
Known as “Honest Jim” at Cambridge for his straightforwardness and candor, Watson’s frankness has often been interpreted by others as hostility and abrasiveness. He has been criticized for being intensely competitive and also for not paying enough attention to the ethical and social implications of recent applications of his discoveries, including cloning and the Human Genome Project.
Socially, Watson was also sincere but blunt. He had a penchant for young women in his labs, and rumors abounded as to women he tried to seducehis most famous pickup line, according to a woman who used to work in his lab back in the late 1960s, was to ask a girl up to his room to “see his Nobel Prize.”
Although he admits in The Double Helix that while his personal and academic techniques may be slightly unorthodox, Watson believes that a spark of creative genius is necessary to achieve great scientific discoveries. A slow, plodding, careful philosophy does not work when it comes to science. “Science seldom proceeds in the straightforward logical manner imagined by outsiders,” he wrote in the book.