Moment of Indiana History

James Watson

Growing up in Chicago, James Watson was into watching birds– and matching wits on the popular syndicated radio and TV series, Quiz Kids . Even with all this extracurricular activity, Watson managed to graduate from high school at age 15, issuing directly into the University of Chicago in 1943. Over the course of his college studies, Watson’s interests shifted from ornithology to genes and heredity. After earning a B.S. in Zoology in 1947, Watson took a fellowship to pursue graduate studies at Indiana University. In Bloomington, Watson came under the sway of geneticist Hermann Muller and shared an attic lab in Kirkwood Hall with the microbiologist Dr. Salvador Luria, who served as Watson’s thesis advisor.

IU awarded Watson his Ph.D. in 1950, at which point he sought post-doc opportunities abroad. Working at the Cavendish Physics Lab of Cambridge University in England, Watson collaborated with Francis Crick to develop a model of the genetic building block known as DNA. Relying on additional research by Maurice Wilkins and the x-ray diffraction pictures of Rosalind Franklin, Watson and Crick discovered DNA’s double-helix structure in early 1953.

Announcing to the patrons of a Cambridge pub one evening that they “had found the secret of life”, Watson and Crick published their findings in the British journal Nature . Twenty-five at that time, Watson still managed to emerge as the youngest laureate to date when he and his colleagues were tapped for the 1962 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Ultimately, all of the scientists who shared his attic lab in Bloomington would become Nobel laureates.

After Cambridge, James Watson pursued research on viruses and RNA both at Cal Tech in Pasadena, and at Harvard, where he was a faculty member from 1956 to 1976. In more recent years, Watson has distinguished himself as the director of New York’s Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory and as one of the originators of the human genome project.

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