This note accompanies the follow episode(s):
The Writer’s Almanac for April 6, 2017: My Heart Leaps Up

Apr. 6, 2017: birthday: James Dewey Watson

It’s the birthday of biophysicist James Dewey Watson (books by this author), born and raised in Chicago (1928). He was a curious child, and would read the World Almanac for fun. He became interested in bird-watching, and that led to an interest in genetics and inherited characteristics. He received a scholarship to the University of Chicago when he was 15, and completed his Bachelor of Science degree in zoology. From there, it was on to Indiana University and a Ph.D., also in zoology. The newly minted Dr. Watson, just 22, took a job at the University of Copenhagen, where he began his research into the genetic makeup of viruses.

In the fall of 1951, Watson moved to Cambridge University, and soon he began working with Francis Crick. The two men shared an interest in DNA, and both believed that it should be fairly easy to work out its structure. Their first attempt was unsuccessful, but it wasn’t long before they hit upon it: a double helix, which looked like a twisted ladder. This model also enabled them to explain how DNA could replicate itself. The two halves of the ladder would separate, like the two sides of a zipper, and each half would serve as a template for the new strand. The two men published their findings in the journal Nature in 1953. Watson, along with Crick and Maurice Wilkins, won the Nobel Prize in 1962 for the discovery.

In 1968, Watson published The Double Helix: A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA. It begins: “I have never seen Francis Crick in a modest mood,” and it is a gossipy look behind the scenes of one of the most important scientific discoveries of modern times. One reviewer called it “lucid, honest, [and] suspenseful” but also “unbelievably mean in spirit.” In 1998, the Modern Library ranked it number seven on its list of the 100 best nonfiction books of the 20th century. Watson has also written a memoir: Avoid Boring People and Other Lessons from a Life in Science (2007).

And: “To succeed in science, you have to avoid dumb people […] you must always turn to people who are brighter than yourself.”