All achievers

James D. Watson, Ph.D.

Discoverer of the DNA Molecule

Suddenly to see the molecule which is responsible for heredity, and makes possible human existence, was a big step in man's understanding of himself in the same sense that Darwin knew that the human species wasn't fixed — that we were changing. It was bound to affect your attitude to everything.

James Dewey Watson was born and raised in Chicago, Illinois. He was a precocious student, and entered the University of Chicago when he was only 15. He received his Bachelor of Science degree in Zoology four years later, and went on to earn a Ph.D. in the same subject at Indiana University. He was engaged in research at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark when he first learned of the biomolecular research underway at the Cavendish Laboratory of Cambridge University in England. Watson joined Francis Crick in this work at Cambridge in 1951.

James Watson and Francis Crick with their model of a DNA molecule in 1953, the year of their discovery.
1953: James Watson and Francis Crick with their model of a DNA molecule, the year of their momentous discovery.

Together, Watson and Crick attempted to determine the chemical structure of living matter. When their initial research failed to produce results, the directors of the laboratory ordered them to end their investigation, but they continued their work in secret and, on February 28, 1953, they made a momentous discovery.

1957: Pioneer geneticist biologist James Watson w. molecular model of DNA, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1957. (Photo by Andreas Feininger/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)
James Watson, with a molecular model of DNA, at his office in Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1957. (Getty Images)

The two scientists had determined the structure of the molecule deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA), of which all living matter is made. In June they published their findings in the British science journal Nature. The article created a sensation. The DNA molecule, Watson and Crick had found, is shaped like a double helix, or “gently twisted ladder.” The two chains of the helix unlink “like a zipper,” and reproduce their missing halves. In this way, each molecule of DNA is able to create two identical copies of itself.

The 1962 Nobel Prize ceremony in Stockholm. The year's honorees, from left to right: Maurice Wilkins, Max Perutz, Francis Crick, John Steinbeck, James Watson and John Kendrew.
The 1962 Nobel Prize ceremony in Stockholm. The Nobel recipients, from left to right, are Maurice Wilkins, Max Perutz, Francis Crick, John Steinbeck, James Watson and John C. Kendrew. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)

The initials DNA, and the elegant model of the double helix, became known around the world. So did Watson and Crick. Their discovery revolutionized the study of biology and genetics, making possible the recombinant DNA techniques used by today’s biotechnology industry. James Watson became a Senior Research Fellow in Biology at the California Institute of Technology, before returning to Cambridge in 1955. The following year he moved to Harvard University, where he became Professor of Biology, a post he held until 1976.

General Colin Powell and Dr. James Watson on the headtable at the American Academy of Achievement's Banquet of the Golden Plate.
Golden Plate Awards Council member General Colin L. Powell, USA, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Dr. James D. Watson on the headtable at the American Academy of Achievement’s 1991 Banquet of the Golden Plate.

In recognition of their discovery, Francis Crick and James Watson shared the 1962 Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine with Maurice Wilkins. In 1968 Watson published his account of the DNA discovery, The Double Helix. The book became an international bestseller, but some in the scientific community were scandalized by Watson’s less-than-flattering portrayal of his own colleagues. Throughout the ensuing controversy, Watson insisted that devotion to the truth was as essential in writing for the general public as it is in scientific research.

Architect Philip Johnson with James Watson at the 1991 gathering of the Academy of Achievement in New York City. (© Academy of Achievement)
Architect Philip Johnson with James Watson at the 1991 Summit of the Academy of Achievement in New York City.

In the same year, James Watson married the former Elizabeth Lewis. They have two sons: Rufus and Duncan.  While continuing his duties at Harvard, James Watson became Director of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory on Long Island. At the time, this institution was in serious financial difficulty but, under Watson’s vigorous leadership, it became financially sound and is now an international leader in genetic research. Scientists working under Watson at Cold Spring Harbor uncovered the molecular nature of cancer and identified cancer genes for the first time. Every year over 4,000 scientists from around the world come to Cold Spring Harbor to study; the Institute’s influence over international genetic research is profound.

In 1993 James Watson and Francis Crick celebrated the 40th anniversary of their discovery at UNESCO. (Pierre Perrin/Sygma via Getty Images)
In 1993, James Watson and Francis Crick celebrated the 40th anniversary of their discovery at UNESCO. (Getty)

In 1988, Watson accepted an invitation from the National Institute of Health to become Associate Director of the Human Genome Project. The following year, Watson became Director of the project and guided it skillfully through the storm of controversy surrounding genetic research. This undertaking has applied the kind of resources usually associated with military and aerospace research to creating a complete directory of the genetic code of the human species. To do this, researchers must determine the location, chemical composition and function of 50,000 to 100,000 separate genes. This will permit the development of tests, and possibly cures, for thousands of hereditary disorders or diseases which have some genetic component.

James Watson in his laboratory at Cold Spring Harbor. (Photo by Ethan Hill/Contour by Getty Images)
Dr. James D. Watson in his laboratory at Cold Spring Harbor, New York. (© Ethan Hill/Contour by Getty Images)

Watson left the Genome project in 1992, having seen it off to a successful start. He continued his work at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory throughout this period, and in 1994 became President of that institution, and later served as its Chancellor.

Universities and governments around the world have honored James Watson with honorary degrees and decorations, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Apart from his many scientific papers and the bestselling Double Helix, Watson’s writings include:The DNA Story, Molecular Biology of the Gene, Molecular Biology of the Cell Recombinant DNA: A Short Course, and his 2003 memoir, Genes, Girls and Gamow.

2004: US scientist and DNA discoverer James Watson poses for photographers behind a model of the 'DNA Double Helix', which was discovered by Watson and Francis Crick at an exhibition in Berlin Monday, Oct. 11, 2004. Berlin's University hospital Charite shows an exhibition of Watson's literary works until Feb. 20, 2005. (AP Photo/Markus Schreiber)
James Watson with a model of the DNA Double molecule at a 2004 exhibition in Berlin, Monday, October 11, 2004.

Over the years, James Watson occasionally attracted controversy with his uninhibited remarks on a variety of topics. In 2007, he apologized publicly after an interview in which he speculated that Africa’s progress might be hindered by genetic inheritance. He retracted the statement and regretted any offense caused by his remarks. Shortly thereafter, he retired as Chancellor of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory and resigned from the Laboratory’s Board of Directors, after 43 years of service. In his resignation statement, he offered the hope that genetic science would soon conquer cancer and mental illness. “Final victory is within our grasp,” he said. “I wish to be among those at the victory line.”

Inducted Badge
Inducted in 1986

“Francis Crick and I made the discovery of the century, that was pretty clear. We made it, and I guess time has justified people paying all this respect to me in spite of my bad manners.”

James Watson was only 25 years old when he and his older colleague, Francis Crick, discovered the structure of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) the building block of all life on Earth. Modern biology, and the biotechnology industry it has spawned, would be unthinkable if these two had not determined the structure of the DNA molecule. Their model of this structure — the double helix — has become a universal symbol of the scientific profession, and the title of Watson’s 1968 bestseller.

Watson and Crick won the Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine in 1962, but this was not the end of Watson’s career in the public eye. Through his many books, and from lecterns at Caltech and Harvard, Watson charged into the heart of scientific controversies. As the long-time Director of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory he continued to lead the way in genetic research. From 1988 to 1992, James Watson served as the first Director of the Human Genome Project at the National Institutes of Health, a massive project to decipher the entire genetic code of the human species. He retired from administrative duties at Cold Spring Harbor in 2007.

Watch full interview

(The American Academy of Achievement has interviewed Dr. James D. Watson on two occasions: on October 22, 1991 at his laboratory in Cold Spring Harbor, New York, and again on April 5, 2001 at the Harvard Faculty Club in Cambridge, Massachusetts.)

How would you describe the significance of your discovery of the DNA molecule?

Keys to success — Vision

James Watson: Francis Crick and I made the discovery of the century, that was pretty clear. We made it, and I guess time has justified people paying all this respect to me in spite of my bad manners. We knew it when we saw it, because you can see human history and human awareness of the world around us. Suddenly to see the molecule which is responsible for heredity, and which makes possible human existence, was a very big step in man’s understanding of himself in the same sense that Darwin knew that the human species wasn’t fixed, that we were changing. It was bound to affect your attitude to everything. The realization that the essence of human beings is carried in a molecule, to really see how it was, to have that first look was, of course, a particularly pleasing thing. I guess now you think about it a little more. I didn’t think about it much. It was as if I’d suddenly become very rich. Lots of doors would be open to you, but with it came the responsibility of both living up to the fact that we were going to be famous, and some sense of responsibility. Francis and I had quite different reactions. We both knew what we’d done, and Francis thought we should talk about it as much as possible, because it was so important. And I thought, God, I had such bad manners to have had this good luck and then lord it over everyone that we had done something important! I think we both misunderstood each other’s motivations at the time. Now I understand his, and probably his were the more correct.

When he announced what you had discovered, you said you were a bit queasy.

James Watson: I think one was queasy, as if you had won the jackpot at Las Vegas and you don’t believe it. You have to wait for a while and accept the fact that it’s not some hallucination.

Francis Crick and James Watson met at the University of Cambridge's Cavendish Laboratory in 1951.
Francis Crick and James Watson met at the University of Cambridge’s Cavendish Laboratory in 1951. In mid-March 1953, using experimental data collected mainly by Rosalind Franklin and also by Maurice Wilkins, Watson and Crick discovered the double-helix structure of DNA. Watson and Crick submitted a paper of their discovery to the scientific journal Nature, which was published on April 25, 1953. This has been described as the “most important scientific discovery of the 20th century.” Watson, Crick, and Wilkins were awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1962 for their research on the structure of nucleic acids. Rosalind Franklin had died in 1958 and was, therefore, ineligible for nomination. The publication of the DNA double helix was a turning point in the history of science and began the modern era of biology. In 1956, Dr. Watson accepted a position in the biology department at Harvard.

You mentioned in your book about someone saying, at a local pub, “You discovered the secret to life!” Did that happen?

James Watson: If it didn’t, if it wasn’t those words, that was sort of the mood. Francis and I were not people to hide what we’d done. As you know, pubs in England have a social role besides getting drunk. So we never went there to get drunk. We always ate lunch in that pub, and sometimes we’d go there for a beer when we quit. That was pretty customary. If you know Francis Crick, he’s very exuberant. That’s an understatement, I think.

How did you first become interested in DNA?

Keys to success — Passion

James Watson: There was this marvelous English book, Chariots of Fire, with the two runners, one of them running for God, and the other to prove that a Jew could run as fast as a Gentile. And it was a great movie. Francis and I were running against God, in the sense that we wanted to know what made us human. Both of us had been subjected to religious truths which came by revelation, and we didn’t have much acceptance of truths by revelation. We wanted to know really what we were. We both were very curious what life was. What is life? And that thinking led you to “What is a gene?” There didn’t seem to be any problem that was important as that. When we found the gene, we realized that people weren’t going to give up accepting truth from revelation, but at least we knew where it came from. Because someone could always say, “There’s something else. There’s more than molecules.” But we couldn’t figure it out. What are there besides molecules? Nothing.

Did you feel as if you were in a race, to some extent?

James Watson: Well, Linus Pauling had this sort of God-like reputation, that anything he wanted to do, he could do. You had to be worried that he’d have that clever idea and you’d be left with nothing. In that sense, if I didn’t worry about the competition I’d have been stupid. People who go around saying they don’t think about the competition, on the whole, are being very dishonest. I think that in The Double Helix I tried to tell it as it was. I probably was a little more polite than I would have been if I had written the book ten years before. The book was written in my mid-30s, so it was a little more polite.

Sir Francis Crick and Dr. James Watson at a Molecular Biology Symposium. (Ted Spiegel/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)
Sir Francis Crick and Dr. James Watson at a Molecular Biology Symposium. (Ted Spiegel/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty)

Even then you ruffled some feathers.

James Watson: Yeah, but there’s a lot of pompous people in this world who have an illusion that they’re better than they are. I never could figure out some of these people who were so upset by the book, whether they actually thought that life was different from the way I portrayed it.

Keys to success — Perseverance

There was one person at Caltech who wrote a review which said my book should virtually be banned from children, because it will keep them from going into science. Maybe this person went into science for different reasons but, certainly, that hasn’t been the effect. Most people who read the book say it was fun, and people say it inspired them to go into the field. So I don’t think that touch of reality really — but some people thought “this is evil,” and I didn’t.

Does it amaze you that you were able to make that discovery as quickly as you did?

James Watson: No. There wasn’t that much to discover. For life to get started, the essence of it couldn’t be so complicated, so finding out the essence shouldn’t be that complicated. If you said life was created by some forces, in a mystical way that you see in films, then it could all be just unbelievably blurry. We just didn’t think it should be a blur. What turned out was a very simple truth — in its simplicity, I mean.

There are a lot of complexities when you say, “How did the first DNA molecules come about?” Now we realize it must have started with RNA. You can ask, “Did it start with RNA as we know it today?” Can you really guess what the chemical events were three or four billion years ago? The answer is no, we can’t right now. So we can’t really prove we know how life came about. But when you saw DNA, you at least knew how life as it exists now is made possible. Of course, since finding the double helix, we’ve discovered an enormous amount of things which make the picture more and more complete. But it was the breakthrough we needed to get on the right track.

Could you describe the Human Genome Project?

James Watson: The immediate objective, over the next 15 to 20 years, is to identify all the human genes. And to begin to home in on the functioning of what they do. To describe the information which makes us human. Now, we’re not going to really understand all the subtleties of this information, which would take thousands of years to unravel. But we’ll at least be able to say, “This is the instruction book.” I think when we get the human instruction book this will, again, be one of these great moments in human history. That man has evolved to the point where he can work out his own set of instructions. This will have lots of consequences because, with this, you’ll be able to do many forms of science faster than we’re now doing them. Also, for people who have a particular rare genetic disease, this will make it so much easier for them to find out which gene is behind it and, hopefully, the actual function of this gene. What protein does it go for? In some of these cases, you always hope, of course, that if you know what’s wrong, you can fix it.

You’ve referred to it as biology’s moon shot.

James Watson: Other people have. I don’t think I invented that. I think it was just that it’s a big effort. Actually costing much less than the moon shot, if we put it in terms of the dollars. One-tenth as much, or something. I think its chief similarity is that to get to the moon required the collaboration of lots of people. Getting to the moon, when I was a child, was an impossible dream. And this is another impossible dream. The great breakthrough of knowing how to work out the letters in an individual genetic message, that actual structure of it, only occurred in 1976. That was through the work at Harvard by Gilbert and Maxson and at Cambridge by Fred Sanger, and Colson. They got the Nobel Prize a few years ago. That opened up the possibility of man eventually working out the genetic message of himself.

2003: Nobel Prize laureate James D. Watson speaks at a press conference to announce that a six-country consortium has successfully drawn up a complete map of the human genome, completing one of the most ambitious scientific projects ever and offering a major opportunity for medical advances at the National Institute of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. The announcement coincides with the 50th anniversary of the publication of the landmark paper describing DNA's double helix by Watson and Francis Crick. AFP PHOTO / Robyn BECK (Photo credit should read ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images)
2003: Watson announces that a consortium has successfully drawn up a complete map of the human genome.

The cost of the project has been criticized, and some people think the funds should be spread around more.

James Watson: Actually we’re spreading it around a lot; it’s not being done in one place. Because it’s going to take 15 years, it’s going to be less than two percent of the budget of the National Institutes of Health. So, it’s not as if it’s there’s enough wastage in the system that if you really cut out the stuff that shouldn’t be done, you could easily pay for it. Something which is quite common in science is that, when you really want to do something different, you’re ahead of your time, most people think you shouldn’t do it, you should continue doing what you’re doing. Most people really get threatened by the thought that the way they do science would be changed. You know, they might become out of date. I’m sure a picture of many people on the outside is that science is filled with leftist radicals. Nothing could be further from the truth. Most scientists are really conservative to the point of being very boring and not that innovative. Maybe when they were young they hoped for change but, as their life gets going, they haven’t changed things that much, and they get settled into a pattern. Someone who really wants to shake things up is thought a threat.

Keys to success — Courage

When Crick and I wanted to do DNA, people thought, “You’re ahead of your time, you really shouldn’t do something like that.” I would feel uncomfortable if I was leading something where, at least in the beginning, people thought it should be done. Because you’re only making a contribution if you’re doing something that, at least to start with, people haven’t gotten used to the idea that it should be done.

If it’s accepted by conventional wisdom, you’re not reaching far enough?

James Watson: Conventional wisdom is, more or less, “Continue doing what you’re doing now.” I think that’s why, if you look at large corporations, it’s so hard for them to change. At least in the culture of the United States, innovation so often comes from something not part of a big organization, where by being small, and just being separate from the ordinary wisdom, you get something done. So that’s what’s been the real health of the American academic system. By passing money out to so many different people, to be free to do what they want, rather than having this sort of grand plan in which the people like myself make the plans. That tends to stifle innovation.

It forces people to bow to some orthodoxy defined by something other than scientific pursuit.

James Watson: In some cultures it’s really very hard to disagree with your elders. Everyone is saying the Japanese are so good. In science they haven’t been very innovative, and I think it’s partly because it’s so hard for their younger people to actually disagree with the people on top. If you’re 30, it’s almost political suicide to disagree with someone who is 50. So they’re very good at doing things once it’s clear it can be done, but totally striking out on their own carries so many recipes for social disaster. That’s been the strength of America. In science, at least, there isn’t much respect for age — which is very good — anymore than there should be respect for age in baseball. There’s only one Nolan Ryan, and there’s no one else. And eventually he’ll have to stop.