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James Dewey Watson (1928 - )

Jochen Kumm

James Watson, one of the most influential researchers in the short history of the field of genetics, was born on April 6, 1928, in Chicago. A precocious student, he entered the University of Chicago at the age of 15 and graduated in 1947. Both Harvard and CalTech turned him down for graduate studies, apparently unappreciative of his extensive background in the classics and his passion for bird watching. So Watson ended up at Indiana, where he gathered up his Ph.D. in genetics, setting out on the "search for the gene."

In 1950, Watson joined the Cavendish laboratories at a time when Francis Crick, Maurice Wilkins, Rosalind Franklin, and Linus Pauling were racing to determine the structure of DNA. The X-ray crystallography experiments of Franklin and Wilkins provided much information about DNA - in particular that DNA was a molecule in which two "strands" formed a tightly linked pair. Crick and Watson made the intuitive leap: in 1953, they proposed that the structure of DNA was a winding helix in which pairs of bases (adenine paired with thymine and guanine paired with cytosine) held the two strands together. The Watson-Crick model of the DNA double helix provided enormous impetus for research in the emerging fields of molecular genetics and biochemistry, and Crick, Watson, and Wilkins were awarded the Nobel Prize in 1962.

In subsequent decades, Watson taught at Harvard and CalTech, and he became director of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York. He has made considerable contributions to the understanding of the genetic code, in which triplets of DNA base pairs identify amino acids and thereby control protein synthesis facilitated by DNA templates.

Watson's successful association with Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory was an unexpected development. Known to leave his shoes untied because of his absentmindedness, Watson nevertheless became a brilliant fundraiser and advocate for basic research in science. After he took on the directorship in 1968, the laboratory became one of the world's leading research centers for molecular biology - and one of the most well endowed. In 1988, his scientific achievement and his success as an administrator led to his appointment as the head of the Human Genome Project at the NIH. Designed to sequence the human genome in its entirety, the Human Genome Project is by far the most ambitious, generously funded endeavor in biology. Its potential payoffs for medical applications are enormous, albeit uncertain, and despite increasing criticism from within the scientific community, Watson has rallied considerable support for this high-stakes gamble.

Watson has always been a controversial figure in biology. He has either been an inspiration or a lightning rod for his high profile approach. Both uncompromising and abrasive, he is known as the "infant terrible" of molecular biology, and he has been heavily criticized for his lack of consideration of social, political, and ethical implications of the Human Genome Project.


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