Famous Scientist in Genetic Research: James Dewey Watson

James Watson

James D. Watson (Wikimedia Image)

The names Watson and Crick are found in most science textbooks around the world, and indelibly imprinted in humanity’s history. One of the most famous scientists in genetic research, James Dewey Watson, together with Francis Crick, Maurice Wilkins and Rosalind Franklin, successfully identified the correct structure of the building block of life: DNA.

James Watson was a brilliant youth. He entered the University of Chicago at 15 years of age, earning a degree in Zoology. He earned his doctorate degree at the University of Indiana. He went on to conduct postdoctoral research in other laboratories where he was able to work with the best scientific minds in the field of molecular biology at his time. Collaborations with Salvador Luria, Max Debruck, Herman Kalckar and Ole Maaloe helped Watson broaden his horizon and introduced him to molecular biology.

These collaborations built an essential network for Watson. He gained many research ideas as well as became conversant with breaking techniques. At that time, the gene was thought to be the primary carrier of hereditary information, with DNA considered just another simple protein. It took the seminal work of Avery, McCarthy and Mcleod to cast doubt into this belief and shed light into the role of DNA as the genetic molecule.

James Watson and Francis Crick pooled their collective talents together to determine the structure of DNA. Working together at Cavendish Laboratory in England, the pair were in a tight race against Maurice Wilkins and Rosalind Franklin of Kings College and Linus Pauling, the progenitor of the alpha helix structure. It took their pooled genius and several narrow turns of fate for Watson and Crick to be the first to publish the double helix structure of DNA. Rosalind Franklin was already making the extraordinary photographs of DNA using x-ray diffraction, a technique that chemist Linus Pauling excelled at. Alas, Pauling was unable to attend the conference where Franklin’s photographs were shown since the U.S. Government thought it was not in its best interest to let Pauling travel. Instead, Watson and Crick were there to get inspiration and build upon what they saw. They were further aided by Maurice Wilkins, Franklin’s co-collaborator who showed the duo an unpublished picture. The pair immediately went to work synthesizing and compiling the information they have obtained to formulate the structure of DNA.

With the Pauling’s work on the alpha helix and Franklin’s photograph, Watson and Crick already had the foundation for a theory on DNA structure. The pair theorized that DNA consisted of double helices held together by adenine-thymine, cytosine guanine complementary pairs. These complementary pairings allowed DNA to replicate accurately. The pairs held together the winding ladder structure that Watson and Crick envisioned, serving as rungs and templates upon replication. The three men, James Watson, Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins won the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine. This made James Watson one of the most famous scientists in genetic research. Rosalind Franklin was not considered since she had died of cancer in 1958 and the Nobel Prize is not awarded posthumously.

The discovery of the structure of DNA launched molecular biology into the spotlight. It began the era of scientific advancement in medicine, virology, nanotechnology and molecular genetics. Watson went on to promote research in this area by heading various laboratories and institutes. His administrative efforts led Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory to revolutionary research in genetics, medicine and heredity.

James Dewey Watson is an exceptional scientist, with a brilliant, precocious mind. Recognizing that science is an interconnected field and that discoveries can be facilitated by networking and communication, he set the tone for further collaborations in science. James Watson blazed his way into the history books and with his will, ambition and talents, paved the way for genetics as we know it today.

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  • Elkin, L.O. 2003. Rosalind Franklin and the Double Helix. Physics Today
  • Watson, James D., (1980) The Double Helix: A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA, Norton Critical Edition, Gunther Stent, ed. New York, NY
  • Wright, Robert, (1999) Molecular Biologists WATSON & CRICK retrieved June 7 2011 from http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,990626,00.html