James Dewey Watson




AMERICAN BIOCHEMIST
1928–

The American biochemist James Dewey Watson was a discoverer of the double- helical structure of the deoxyribonucleic acid molecule.

James D. Watson was born April 6, 1928, in Chicago, Illinois. At age fifteen he entered the University of Chicago. He graduated in 1947 and went on to pursue graduate study in the biological sciences at Indiana University. There he came under the influence of some distinguished scientists, including Nobel laureate Hermann J. Muller, who were instrumental in shifting his interests from natural history toward genetics and biochemistry. In 1950 Watson successfully completed his doctoral research project on the effect of x rays upon the multiplication of bacteriophages .

Watson spent 1950 and 1951 as a National Research Council fellow in Copenhagen doing postdoctoral work with biochemist Herman Kalckar. Watson had hoped to learn more about the biochemistry of the genetic material deoxyribonucleic acid ( DNA ). These studies proved unproductive. It was not until the spring of 1951, when he heard the English biophysicist Maurice Wilkins speak in Naples on the structure of the DNA molecule, that Watson enthusiastically turned his full attention to the DNA problem.

American biochemist James Dewey Watson, corecipient, with Francis Harry Compton Crick and Maurice Hugh Frederick Wilkins, of 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."
American biochemist James Dewey Watson, corecipient, with Francis Harry Compton Crick and Maurice Hugh Frederick Wilkins, of 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."

Watson's next research post at Cavendish Laboratory, Cambridge, England, brought him into contact with the physicist turned biologist Francis Crick. Together they shared an interest in DNA. Thus began the partnership between Watson and Crick that resulted in their joint proposal of the double-helical model of the DNA in 1953. Watson, Crick, and Wilkins shared the 1962 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine for their DNA studies.

The structure of the giant and complex DNA molecule reveals the physical and chemical basis of heredity. Watson and Crick were convinced that the molecular subunits which made up DNA were arranged in a relatively simple pattern that could be discovered by them. Their mode of operation stressed the conception and construction of large-scale models that would account for the known chemical and physical properties of DNA. To this model-building endeavor Watson contributed the double-helical structure, along with other fruitful, intuitive suggestions, while Crick provided the necessary mathematical and theoretical knowledge. After their work on DNA was completed, Watson and Crick collaborated again in 1957, this time in clarifying the structure of viruses.

After a two-year stay at the California Institute of Technology, Watson accepted a position as professor of biology at Harvard University in 1956 and remained on the faculty until 1976. In 1968 he became the director of the Cold Spring Biological Laboratories but retained his research and teaching position at Harvard. That same year he published The Double Helix, revealing the human story behind the discovery of the DNA structure, including the rivalries and deceits that were practiced by all.

In l989 Watson was appointed the director of the Human Genome Project of the National Institutes of Health. He resigned in 1992 in protest over policy differences in the operation of this massive project. He continued to speak out on various issues concerning scientific research and upheld his strong presence concerning federal policies in supporting research. In addition to sharing the Nobel Prize, Watson received numerous honorary degrees from institutions, including one from the University of Chicago (1961) when Watson was still in his early thirties. He was also awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1977 by President Jimmy Carter. On July 4, 2000, Watson and Crick were awarded the Philadelphia Liberty Medal. The Liberty Medal was established in 1988 to honor individuals or organizations whose actions represent the founding principles of the United States.

FRANCIS CRICK (1916–)

Starting in his childhood in England, Francis Crick developed a fascination with science. After his collaborative work on DNA with James Watson, for which the two received a Nobel Prize, Crick unraveled the mystery of how DNA bases code for the primary sequence of a protein, and in 1957 he introduced its central dogma. Since 1976 Crick has been studying the functions of the human brain.

—Valerie Borek

Bibliography

Berry, Andrew, and Watson, James D. (2003). DNA: The Secrets of Life. New York: Knopf.

Gamow, George (1970). My World Line. New York: Viking.

McElheny, Victor K. (2003). Watson and DNA: Making a Scientific Revolution. Cambridge, MA: Perseus.

Watson, James D. (1968). The Double Helix: A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA. New York: Atheneum.

Watson, James D. (2002). Genes, Girls, and Gamow. New York: Knopf.



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