Photo of James D. Watson

James D. Watson

  • National Medal of Science
  • Biological Sciences

For five decades of scientific and intellectual leadership in molecular biology, ranging from his co-discovery of the double helical structure of DNA to the launching of the Human Genome Project.

James D. Watson is credited with the discovery of the double-helix structure of DNA along with Francis Crick. Watson met Crick during his time at the University of Cambridge’s Cavendish Laboratory, where Watson was continuing his postdoctoral work with X-rays, learning diffraction techniques. Crick shared his interest in puzzling out the structure of DNA.

Crick’s and Watson’s first effort toward learning the structure of DNA came up short, but their second attempt resulted in discovering the double-helical configuration of DNA. Their model showed how the DNA molecule could duplicate itself, answering one of the fundamental questions in the field of genetics. Watson and Crick published their groundbreaking findings in the journal Nature in April-May 1953. Their discovery built on research conducted by Rosalind Franklin at King’s College London.

From 1988 to 1992, Watson helped to establish and direct the Human Genome Project at the National Institutes of Health, where he oversaw the mapping of genes in human chromosomes. Watson hopes that the project will further personalized medicine, allowing treatments and medicines to be tailored specifically to a patient.

By Jen Santisi