James Dewey Watson (born April 6, 1928) is one of the discoverers of the structure of the DNA molecule. Born in Chicago, he enrolled at the age of 15, earned a B.Sc. in Zoology at the University of Chicago in 1947 and a Ph.D. in Zoology at Indiana University at Bloomington in 1950 before heading to Copenhagen for postdoctoral work.
In 1952, he started at Cavendish Laboratory, where he met Francis Crick. Building on the X-ray diffraction research of Rosalind Franklin and Maurice Wilkins, they together deduced the double helix structure of DNA, which they published in the journal Nature on April 25, 1953. Watson, Crick, and Wilkins were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their discovery in 1962.
In 1968 Watson wrote The Double Helix, one of the Modern Library's 100 best non-fiction books. The account is the sometimes painful story of not only the discovery of DNA, but the personalities, conflicts and controversy surrounding their work.
The Double Helix changed the way the public viewed scientists and the way they work. In the same way, Watson's first textbook, The Molecular Biology of the Gene set a new standard for textbooks, particularly through the use of concept heads - brief declarative subheadings. Its style has been emulated by almost all succeeding texbooks. His next great success was Molecular Biology of the Cell although here his role was more of coordinator of an outstanding group of scientist-writers. His third textbook was Recombinant DNA which used the ways in which genetic engineering has brought us so much new information about how organisms function. All the textbooks are still in print.
In 1988, Watson's achievement and success led to his appointment as the Head of the Human Genome Project at the National Institutes of Health, a position he held until 1992.
Like his late colleague, Francis Crick, Watson is an outspoken atheist, known for his frank opinions on politics, religion, and the role of science in society. He has been considered to hold a number of controversial views.
He is for instance a strong proponent of genetically modified crops, holding that the benefits far outweigh any plausible environmental dangers, and that many of the arguments against GM crops are unscientific or irrational. A discussion of his views on these matters are covered in some depth in his book DNA: The Secret of Life (2003), particularly in chapter 6.
A frequent public speaker, Watson currently serves as chancellor of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in Cold Spring Harbor, New York. Watson resides on the grounds of the laboratory.
James D. Watson and Francis H. Crick. "Letters to Nature: Molecular structure of Nucleic Acid." Nature 171, 737–738 (1953).
- James D. Watson, The Double Helix: A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA, Atheneum, 1980, ISBN 0689706022 (first published in 1968)
- James D. Watson, Genes, Girls, and Gamow: After the Double Helix, Random House, January, 2002, hardcover, 259 pages, ISBN 0375412832
- James D. Watson and Andrew Berry, DNA: The Secret of Life, Random House, April, 2003, hardcover, 464 pages, ISBN 0375415467