Codebreakers: Makers of Modern Genetics

The James Watson papers

Before my arrival in Cambridge, Francis only occasionally thought about deoxyribonucleic acid and its role in heredity.

James Watson, 'The Double Helix', 1968

James Watson combined his expertise in genetics with Francis Crick's understanding of complex molecular structures to crack the biggest biological problem of the 20th century: the structure of DNA.

Jim Watson (b. 1928) has been a dominant figure in molecular biology for more than half a century. Having helped to discover the double helix in Cambridge at the age of only 25, he went on to write the definitive textbook on the molecular biology of the gene (as well as his startlingly frank memoir, 'The Double Helix'), to direct the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, where he focused its attention on the genetics of cancer, and to kickstart the Human Genome Project.

James Watson, Francis Crick, A Cohen and H Rose at Cavendish Laboratory, June 1952

James Watson and Francis Crick with other research students. Cavendish Laboratory, University of Cambridge, June 1952.
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A prolific correspondent, Watson wrote to family members and friends during his time in England, and his archive includes these blow-by-blow accounts of the discovery that made his name. He was also a key figure in the network of correspondents who debated the workings of the genetic code and the mechanism of gene expression during the late 1950s and 1960s.

From the early 1960s, Watson was an influential figure in US science policy, advising President Kennedy on biological warfare, ensuring funds for research for President Nixon's 'war on cancer', and promoting the use of public funds to sequence the human genome. He presided over Cold Spring Harbor for decades, transforming its fortunes through fundraising and encouraging a thriving programme of meetings and courses that have played a key role in the advance of molecular biology.

The archives at Cold Spring Harbor have received all his personal, scientific and institutional papers, the bulk of which have been digitised as part of this project. With the Crick, Brenner and Wilkins papers, the Watson archive provides profound historical insight into the progress of genetics in the second half of the 20th century, and its political and social impact. It also provides a detailed portrait of an individual who is unsparingly frank, politically astute, yet at times heedless of the damage his outspokenness might occasion to himself or others.

Originals held by... 

This material has been provided by Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Archives NY, USA where the originals may be consulted.

Born in Chicago in 1928, James Dewey Watson was a prodigy whose brilliant mind took him to the University of Chicago at the age of only 15, and to the Nobel ceremony in Stockholm before he was 35. Having achieved so much at an early age, he has spent most of his career indefatigably inspiring, urging and persuading others to pursue research into genetics in order to find the answers to the most pressing health problems.

Young-Watson-captioned.jpg
James Watson, late 1940s
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After solving the DNA structure with Francis Crick in Cambridge in 1953, Watson returned to a position at Harvard University, and subsequently took up the directorship of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory on Long Island, which became his home. Following a media outcry after he made controversial remarks about race during a press interview, he retired from his position as the Laboratory's Chancellor in 2007, later taking the title Emeritus Chancellor.

From 1989 to 1992 Watson was Director of the US National Center for Human Genome Research at the National Institutes of Health, in which role he was influential in establishing the international consortium that first sequenced the human genome by 2003. He was dismissed from the post after disagreeing with the Director of NIH, Bernardine Healy, about the patenting of genetic sequences. He is committed to the application of genetic information to the solution of medical problems.

After 'The Double Helix', Watson wrote two further memoirs, the final instalment entitled 'Avoid Boring People and Other Lessons from a Life in Science'. Of his attachment to the autobiographical genre, he wrote:

If your life has graced you with lots of memorable occasions, merely reporting them correctly generates a book worth reading.

James Watson, 'Avoid Boring People and Other Lessons from a Life in Science', 2007

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