Jan. 18, 2007
Vol. 26 No. 8

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    Alumni Medal will go to genetics pioneer Watson

    By John Easton
    Medical Center Public Affairs

    James Watson (right) talks with a student after giving a lecture on campus in January 2004.

    The University Alumni Board of Governors has announced that James Dewey Watson (S.B. ’47), co-discoverer of the structure of DNA in 1953, recipient of the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1962, founder of the Human Genome Project in 1988, and the former president and current chancellor of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, will be honored with the 2007 University Alumni Medal.

    Watson will receive the medal at the Alumni Weekend Convocation, Saturday, June 2, where he will deliver the Convocation address. He joins such Chicago luminaries as journalist David Broder (A.B., ’47, A.M., ’51) and Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens (A.B., ’47) in being awarded the University’s highest honor.

    Known worldwide for his crucial role in the discovery of the structure of DNA, which has become an iconic achievement for modern science, Watson helped inspire the rapid development of modern biology and the emergence of the biotechnology industry. He subsequently launched the international effort to map and sequence the human genome, the first successful “big science” program in biomedical research. Between 1988 and 1992, he directed the multimillion-dollar U.S. Human Genome Project.

    Also an author, Watson has published eight books as well as numerous essays in popular magazines. While his immensely successful textbooks The Molecular Biology of the Gene, The Molecular Biology of the Cell and Recombinant DNA, set a new standard for biology texts, he may be better known for his candid narratives of the process of discovery, and his provocative musings on the rivalry, antagonisms and human emotions involved in scientific inquiry.

    His 1968 personal history of the search for the structure of DNA—The Double Helix, a tell-all narrative that won him the nickname “honest Jim” and aggravated many of his closest colleagues—became an international best seller. It has been translated into more than 20 languages and is still in print.

    As Watson noted in an interview published in the July 2003 issue of Discover magazine, he had set out to write a good book, not a scientific treatise. He told Discover he was more proud of his books, The Molecular Biology of the Gene and The Double Helix, than he was of his co-discovery of the structure of DNA, simply because someone else would have soon discovered it if he had not.

    Born in Chicago on April 6, 1928, Watson was a star at age 12 on the Quiz Kids, a popular radio show that challenged precocious youngsters to answer difficult questions. He skipped his junior and senior years of high school and, at age 15, entered a University program for gifted students. In 1946, after reading What Is Life? The Physical Aspects Of The Living Cell by Erwin Schrodinger, Watson developed a life-long interest in genetics. In 1947, at age 19, he earned his S.B. from Chicago in zoology and moved to Indiana University to study with microbiologist Salvador Luria, completing his Ph.D. at the age of 22 in 1950.

    In 1951, at the Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge University, Watson met Francis Crick; they soon discovered their common interest in solving the structure of DNA. On Feb. 28, 1953, at the Eagle Pub in Cambridge, Watson and Crick announced to fellow patrons that they had “found the secret of life.” In a feature on the 100 most important people of the 20th century, Time magazine noted that, “Actually, they had.”

    They published a two-page paper, one of the most famous in all of science, in Nature on April 25, 1953, describing the structure and noting, with typical British reserve, that, “It has not escaped our notice that the specific pairing we have postulated immediately suggests a copying mechanism for the genetic material.”

    After that, Watson spent two years as a senior research fellow in biology at the California Institute of Technology and another year back at Cambridge University before joining the biology faculty at Harvard University, where he became a full professor in 1961. In 1968, he was named director of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in Long Island, New York. Under his direction, the laboratory began research on viruses that cause cancer. It consistently ranks among the top research institutions worldwide. In 1994, he became president of the lab.

    In addition to the Nobel Prize, Watson has received many other honors, including the Albert Lasker Prize; the Presidential Medal of Freedom; the Eli Lilly Award in Biochemistry; the Copley Medal of the Royal Society of London; and the Charles A. Dana Distinguished Achievement Award in Health. He has received honorary degrees from 18 universities, including Chicago in 1961, his first.

    His memberships include the American Academy of Arts and Sciences; the National Academy of Sciences; the American Philosophical Society; the Athenaeum, London; the Royal Society of London; and the Award in Health, 1994.