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Monday, June 29, 2015

James Dewey Watson

                My oldest son probably knew about My Very Important Peron (VIP) for this week is James Dewey Watson years ago.  My son majored in molecular biology, and Watson is a molecular biologist, geneticist and zoologist.  He is best known for being co-discoverer structure of DNA in 1953 with Francis Crick.  Watson and Crick, along with Maurice Wilkins, received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1962.  Their award was “for their discoveries concerning the molecular structure of nucleic acids and its significance for information transfer in living material.”

                Watson was born on April 6, 1928, in Chicago, Illinois; he is the only son of Jean (Mitchell) and James D. Watson, a businessman whose ancestors were colonial English immigrants to America.  His maternal grandfather was Lauchlin Mitchell who was a tailor from Glasgow, Scotland; his maternal grandmother was Lizzie Gleason whose Irish parents were from Tipperary.  He was raised Catholic who escaped from the religion because his father did not believe in God.

                Growing up on the south side of Chicago, Watson “attended public schools, including Grammar School and South Shore High School.”  Watson and his father were fascinated with watching birds and often shared this hobby; Watson even considered majoring in ornithology.  Watson enrolled at the University of Chicago on a tuition scholarship when he was only 15 years old.  Robert Hutchins, the University president, apparently heard Watson answer questions on “Quiz Kids, a popular radio show that challenged bright youngsters.”

                Watson “changed his professional ambitions from the study of ornithology to genetics” after reading Erwin Schrodinger’s What Is Life?  “In his autobiography, Avoid Boring People, Watson described the University of Chicago as an idyllic academic institution where he was instilled with the capacity for critical thought and an ethical compulsion not to suffer fools who impeded his search for truth, in contrast to his description of later experiences.  In 1947 Watson left the University of Chicago to become a graduate student at Indiana University, attracted by the presence at Bloomington of the 1946 Nobel Prize winner Hermann Joseph Muller, who in crucial papers published in 1922, 1929, and in the 1930s had laid out all the basic properties of the heredity molecule that Schrodinger presented in his 1944 book.  He received his PhD degree from Indiana University in 1950; Salvador Luria was his doctoral advisor.”

                Early in 1948, Watson began his PhD at Indiana University and did research in the laboratory of Salvador Luria, another Nobel Prize winner.  In September 1950 began a year of postdoctoral research at Copenhagen University.  He first worked with biochemist Herman Kallckar and later worked with microbial physiologist Ole Maaloe.  Watson’s intention was “to determine whether protein or DNA was the genetic material.”  He attended a meeting in Italy where Maurice Wilkins spoke about “his X-ray diffraction data for DNA.”  Following the presentation, Watson was “certain that DNA had a definite molecular structure that could be elucidated.”

                After chemist Linus Pauling in California published his model of the amino acid alpha helix in 1951 and Watson did further research, Watson wanted to “learn to perform X-ray diffraction experiments so he could work to determine the structure of DNA.”  He went to England in 1951 to do “a new postdoctoral research project.”

                In mid-March 1953 Maurice Wilkins, Watson and Crick used their own experimental data as well as much collected by Rosalind Franklin and “deduced the double helix structure of DNA.  Sir Lawrence Bragg, the director of the Cavendish Laboratory (where Watson and Crick worked), made the original announcement of the discovery at a Solvay conference on proteins in Belgium on April 8, 1953; it went unreported by the press.  Watson and Crick submitted a paper to the scientific journal Nature, which was published on April 25, 1953.  This has been described by some other biologists and Nobel laureates as the most important scientific discovery of the 20th century.  Bragg gave a talk at the Guy’s Hospital Medical School in London on Thursday, May 14, 1953, which resulted in a May 15, 1953, article by Ritchie Calder in the London newspaper News Chronicle, entitled `Why You Are You.  Nearer Secret of Life.’”

                In 1962 Watson, Crick, and Wilkins received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their research on the structure of nucleic acids.  Rosalind Franklin was not eligible for nomination because she died in 1958.  “The publication of the double helix structure of DNA can be regarded as a turning point in science:  human understanding of life was fundamentally changed and the modern era of biology began.”

                In 1968 Watson married Elizabeth Lewis, and the couple became parents of two sons, Rufus Robert Watson (born 1970) and Duncan James Watson (born 1972).  Rufus suffers from schizophrenia, and Watson desires “to encourage progress in understanding and treatment of mental illness by determining how genetics contributes to it.”  Watson is an atheist and signed the Humanist Manifesto in 2003, along with 21 other Nobel Laureates.

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