Among the most notable and controversial Nobel Prize recipients is James Watson. He, together with Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins, was awarded the Nobel Prize in the year 1962 in the Physiology or Medicine category. He is one of the scientists who discovered the molecular structure of the DNA which is hailed as one of the great breakthroughs in the field of Sciences.
James Dewey Watson was born on April 6, 1928 in Chicago, Illinois. In his early life, he was said to be fond of bird-gazing together with his father. When he was 12 years old, he was part of the famous radio show entitled Quiz Kids, a game which challenged young students to a quiz contest. At the age of 15, Watson entered the University of Chicago with the help of the then liberal policy of Robert Hutchins, the University president. In 1946, his interest in the field of science changed from his former concern on ornithology to genetics after he had read What Is Life? by Erwin Schrodinger. In 1947, he received his Bachelor’s degree in Zoology from the same university.
Among Watson’s foremost influences was Salvador Luria, also a Nobel Prize winner. He was engrossed to the latter’s work which exposed him on the nature of genetic mutations. In the first months of 1948, Watson started to pursue his Ph.D. research at Indiana University at Luria’s laboratory. He was able to meet with another Nobel Prize recipient Max Delbruck. Delbruck and Luria were the pioneers of the Phage Group, a movement of geneticists who underwent studies and researches on microbial genetics. Eventually, Watson was also able to work with the group as a working scientist.
His experience with the Phage group opened up his scientific knowledge on the nature and structure of genes. In order to develop his knowledge about the components of a gene, he took a course with another scientist Feliz Haurowitz in 1949 in which he was able to gain the conventional views on genes such as genes were proteins and vice versa; that genes have the capacity to replicate themselves; and other scientific data about the DNA. But through with all those knowledge, Watson was also fascinated with the work of Oswald Avery explaining that DNA was indeed the genetic molecule. Towards his doctoral studies, he underwent X-rays researches which attempted to de-motivate bacterial viruses. In 1950, he received his Ph.D. in Zoology at Indiana University.
To be able to enhance more his knowledge on genetics and genetic composition, Watson went to Europe to pursue a postdoctoral study. He stayed at the laboratory in Copenhagen owned by a biochemist named Herman Kalckar whose studies were also linked with the nucleic acids. Through his stay with Kalckar’s laboratory, he was able to conduct experiments with another member of the Phage group, Ole Maaloe.
The latter’s studies and researches were concerned on the DNA and the earlier supposition that it is the genetic molecule. In a meeting in Italy where he accompanied Kalckar, he met Maurice Wilkins who was also a devoted geneticist. In an event, Wilkins had shown Watson an X-ray diffraction data for DNA (which was originally worked out by Rosalind Franklin). After seeing the X-ray, he came to a conclusion that DNA had a distinct structure. Watson attempted to discover this through his experimental research done in different universities.
Watson came to a decision to be familiar with performing X-ray diffraction experiments for the reason that such undertaking would lead him to a more probable and easier discovery of the DNA structure (He was inspired by Linus Pauling who was able to publish the protein alpha helix model with his unremitting efforts in undergoing X-ray experiments on molecular model.
In 1951, Watson, together with Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins, started to work out a series of experimental researches using Franklin’s X-ray findings on DNA structure. A controversy was said to occur during the period of experimental researches among Watson, Crick and Wilkins for the reason that they were using Franklin’s data and findings without the latter’s knowledge and consent. To further study Franklin’s X-ray findings, Watson attended one of Franklin’s seminar by which she explained how she obtained her findings on the DNA structure.
Originally, Franklin claimed that the DNA was structured in helix-form. With this, Watson had started again to construct a molecular model but in the end it was criticize by Franklin by saying that the phosphate backbones must not be in the inside but on the outside. Eager to finish their attempt, the two used Franklin’s observations in their ultimate attempt to arrive at the DNA structure model. However, 1951, the absolute details of the chemical structure of the backbone of the DNA were identified by Alexander Todd, a biochemist. With that, Watson and Crick were asked to stop working with the DNA structure in 1952. Yet the two had never completely put aside their desire to come up with the DNA structure model.
After numerous trips which exposed Watson and Crick to different methods and experimental systems that could help them in their account on DNA structure model, they were again asked to continue working on the DNA structural model by the then laboratory director Maurice Wilkins. Through the years, Franklin’s findings progresses and even developed. The two, again, used Franklin’s findings in their experimental research on the DNA structure.
The most outstanding contribution of Watson in the entire pursuit of the structural model of the DNA was his discovery of the nucleotide base pairs. These base pairs are said to be the chief answer in solving the structure and function of the DNA. Watson used the Pauling tradition, which he was formerly exposed.
On February 1953, Watson worked out a molecule model which used a straight periphery, and exacto blade, white cardboard and adhesive. He made the molecules flat in their loop so that he could slide the cardboard models and inspect how they work. Through such improvised models, Watson saw that the bigger two ring (A and G nucleobase; also referred as the purines) could be matched with a lesser one ring (T and C nucleobases; also referred as the pyrimidines).
Watson hypothesized if the tow pairs could be paired through a hydrogen bond which he discovered possible. He then observed that the two pairs could be placed over on each other with alike general configuration. To elaborate, the hexagonal rings were central and the comparative courses of the five-member rings of A and G were the identical. Watson perceived that numerous members were falling into place such that he regarded it as the answer. He was right for formulating such conclusion. Watson’s discovery of the base pairs was unswerving with what Chargaff, also a biochemist, had already worked out.
Not so long that Watson and Crick had completed their experimental research on the structural model of DNA by concluding the double helix form of the DNA. They presented their findings through a journal entitled Nature. With this great discovery, Watson and his co-scientists Crick and Wilkins were given the Nobel Prize in 1962 for their discovery of the structure of nucleic acids.
Nevertheless, as mentioned earlier the controversy involving the original works of Franklin had put the three Nobel Prize Awardees in so much criticisms primarily with their failure to acknowledge the contribution of Franklin. But Watson took the courage to clarify the issue and appraise Franklin’s involvement in the discovery of the DNA structural model. In 1968, he published a book entitled The Double-Helix which explained his team’s side regarding the controversy with Franklin. He clarified that it was not intentional to bypass Franklin all throughout their achievements. He said that Franklin was really one of the persons who gave him the impetus to strive harder and make him more careful in analyzing his experimental research on DNA structure. In the end, his team included Franklin as one of the most important persons behind the success of their structural model of DNA.
Watson’s published book made the public realize how scientists like him undergo so much hardships for the sake of scientific discoveries which can really aid the entire mankind in uplifting the quality of their lives. He had proven that with great effort and outstanding sacrifice, anyone could victoriously achieve his or her goals.
Watson did not stop his scientific endeavors with his Nobel Prize award. He worked with the Genome Project in 1988 which he held up until 1992.
Hamilton, J. (2004). James Watson: Solving the Mystery of DNA (Nobel Prize-Winning Scientists). Enslow Publishers.
Watson, J. D. (2001). The Double Helix: A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA (First ed.). Touchstone.