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.
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 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.
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 best-seller, 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.
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.
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 best-selling 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.
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."