Born in Chicago in 1928, James Watson's introduction to biology was through watching birds with his father. At the age of fifteen, he received a scholarship to the University of Chicago, where he majored in zoology and received his B.S. in 1947.
Dr. Watson then enrolled at Indiana University, because his interests had turned to genetics and Indiana at that time had three of the leaders in the field: Hermann Muller, Tracy Sonneborn, and Salvador Luria. His dissertation was on the effects of x-rays on replication of bacteriophage, a project that echoed the watershed research taking place at Cold Spring Harbor. He did his dissertation under Salvador Luria, and received his Ph.D. in 1950.
During a postdoctoral fellowship to continue his phage research in Copenhagen, Watson began to be interested in the structure of DNA. In 1951 he went to the Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge University to learn the techniques of studying the three-dimensional structure of proteins. There he met British physicist Francis Crick, whose interests had gravitated toward genetics. With x-ray crystallography data from colleagues Rosalind Franklin and Maurice Wilkins, Watson and Crick put together a model of the now-familiar DNA molecule, with its spiral staircase double helix shape and it’s A,C,G,T base pairs. This work was published in 1953, and the three men were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1962 (Franklin died in 1958).
Dr. Watson then went to the California Institute of Technology, where he worked as a research fellow and then, following another year at the Cavendish, he moved to Harvard University as an assistant professor in 1956; he was appointed associate professor in 1958 and full professor in 1961. He became director of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in 1968, though he retained his appointment at Harvard until 1976. From 1988 to 1992 he directed the National Center for Human Genome Research at the National Institutes of Health in addition to Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory.
In addition to the Nobel, Dr. Watson has been honored with the Lasker Award of the American Public Health Association (1960), the John J. Carty Gold Medal of the National Academy of Sciences (1971), and the Presidential Medal of Freedom (1977). He is a member of the Russian National Academy of Sciences, the American Philosophical Society, the Danish Academy of Arts and Sciences, and was a senior fellow in the Society of Fellows of Harvard University. He holds several honorary doctorates, including degrees from Harvard, Notre Dame, Rockefeller University, The Albert Einstein College of Medicine, Indiana University, and The University of Chicago.