James Watson was born on April 6, 1928 in Chicago, Illinois. He was a very intelligent child. He graduated high school early and attended the University of Chicago at the age of fifteen. James loved birds and initially studied ornithology (the study of birds) at college. He later changed his specialty to genetics. In 1950, at the age of 22, Watson received his PhD in zoology from the University of Indiana.
James D. Watson. Source: National Institutes of Health
In 1951, Watson went to Cambridge, England to work in the Cavendish Laboratory in order to study the structure of DNA. There he met another scientist named Francis Crick. Watson and Crick found they had the same interests. They began working together. In 1953 they published the structure of the DNA molecule. This discovery became one of the most important scientific discoveries of the 20th century.
Watson (along with Francis Crick, Rosalind Franklin, and Maurice Wilkins) was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1962 for the discovery of the DNA structure. He continued his research into genetics writing several textbooks as well as the bestselling book The Double Helix which chronicled the famous discovery.
Watson later served as director of the Cold Spring Harbor Lab in New York where he led groundbreaking research into cancer. He also helped to form the Human Genome Project which mapped out the human genetic sequence.
Francis Crick was born in Weston Favell, England on June 8, 1916. His father was a shoemaker, but Francis soon found a love for learning and science. He did well in school and attended the University College London. Crick had won several awards for his research when he met James Watson at the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge, England. They soon made their famous discovery of the DNA double helix in 1953.
After making the discovery and winning the Nobel Prize in 1962, Crick continued his research into genetics at Cambridge. He later worked as a research professor at the Salk Institute in California for many years. Crick died of colon cancer on July 28, 2004.
Discovering the Structure of DNA
In the early 1950s, scientists had learned a lot about genetics, but they still didn't understand the structure of the DNA molecule. Scientists needed to understand the structure of DNA in order to fully understand genetics. The Cavendish Laboratory had put together a team to try and solve the problem before an American team led by the famous biochemist Linus Pauling could. It became a race to see who could figure it out first!
When Crick and Watson met at Cambridge they quickly learned that they had the same passion for solving the DNA structure. They both had similar ideas as well on how the problem could be solved. Despite having very different personalities, they became good friends and respected each other's work.
DNA model template used by Crick and Watson. Source: Smithsonian. Photo by Ducksters.
Using stick-and-ball models, Watson and Crick tested their ideas of how the DNA molecule might fit together. Their first attempt in 1951 failed, but they kept at it. They also used information from X-ray pictures to give them ideas for the structure. Rosalind Franklin and Maurice Wilkins were two scientists that were experts in taking these pictures. Crick and Watson were able to gain some valuable information by studying pictures taken by Franklin and Wilkins.
In 1953, Crick and Watson were able to put together an accurate model of the DNA structure. The model used a twisting "double helix" shape. This model would help scientists throughout the world in learning more about genetics.
Interesting Facts about James Watson and Francis Crick
When Watson was a kid, he appeared as a contestant on the radio show Quiz Kids.
Watson became the second person to make his genetic sequence available online.
Both Crick and Watson had strong personalities. Crick was outgoing and boisterous. Watson was considered more reserved, but arrogant.
Crick and Watson used Rosalind Franklin's images of the DNA molecule without her permission.
Both Watson and Crick were inspired by the book What Is Life? by Austrian physicist Erwin Schrodinger.