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James D. Watson

James D. Watson

Oliver R. Grace Professor Emeritus/Chancellor Emeritus

Ph.D., Indiana University, 1950

Dr. James D. Watson, co-discoverer of DNA’s double helix, is a Nobel laureate, past president of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, and generous philanthropist.

I came first to Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory with my thesis advisor, Salvador Luria, in the summer of 1948 as an Indiana University graduate student. Even then, a significant part of the Laboratory’s life revolved around education with its three-week-long Phage Course, taught first in 1945 by Max Delbruck, the German-born, theoretical-physicist-turned-biologist. Over its more than 25-year history, the Phage Course was the training ground for many key scientists who laid the foundations of molecular genetics. The Laboratory’s annual scientific Symposium, held each June, provided education of a different kind. It dealt with some exciting field of biology; participants spent 10 days together learning from each other. It was at the 1953 symposium entitled “Viruses,” organized by Delbruck, that I came from England to give the first public presentation of the DNA double helix.

My becoming the Laboratory’s director in 1968 inspired me to make the Laboratory an even more important world center for advanced education in molecular biology. Over the years, the number of meetings and courses has increased steadily; they now number about 60 and are held year-round. Additionally, the DNA Learning Center provides genetics education to middle and high school students, and the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press yearly publishes many important titles in molecular biology, cellular biology, and neurobiology. With the establishment of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Watson School of Biological Sciences, we are finally taking on a degree-granting role. It will have my strongest support and allow me again to have a teaching role.

I was born in 1928 in Chicago. My boyhood scientific interest was ornithology. But by the time I finished college at the University of Chicago in 1947, I wanted to study the gene. That I first did seriously at Indiana University, finishing my Ph.D. there in the spring of 1950. My thesis research was on X-ray inactivation of bacteriophage, a project that first sharpened my interest in DNA. Then, in focusing on viruses, I hoped I was studying naked genes. Starting in the fall of 1951 in England, Francis Crick and I began making 3-D models of DNA at the Cavendish Physics Laboratory of Cambridge University. Eighteen months later, early in 1953, we found the double helix. Following a subsequent several-year stay at the California Institute of Technology, I became a member of the faculty of Harvard University in 1956, remaining there as a professor until 1976.

I became director of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in 1968, first making it my main home in 1974. From 1988 to 1992, I was the first director of the NIH component of the Human Genome Project. In January 1994, at the age of 65, I ceased being director of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory and assumed the title of president. Ten years later, I assumed the title of chancellor. My long-term interest in education is most tangibly demonstrated by my helping generate three widely used textbooks: Molecular Biology of the Gene, Molecular Biology of the Cell, and Recombinant DNA.