James D. Watson

On this date in 1928, James D. Watson was born in Chicago. Watson, who co-discovered the double helix structure of DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) at age 25, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1962, along with Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins. His bird-watching hobby prompted his interest in genetics. He earned his B.Sc. degree in zoology from the University of Chicago in 1947, and his Ph.D. from Indiana University in Bloomington in 1950. He worked with Wilkins and Frances Crick at Cavendish Laboratory in England in 1951-1953, when they discovered the structure of DNA. Watson became a member of the Harvard Biology Department in 1956, then a full professor in 1961. His book The Double Helix, which was published in 1968, became a bestseller. Watson was appointed director of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory on Long Island in 1968, and became its president in 1994. As director of the National Center for Human Genome Research at the NIH in 1989, Watson launched the worldwide campaign to map and sequence the human genome. Watson is an outspoken unbeliever who considers that human progress has been shackled by the idea of divine fate, and that human beings should do their utmost to improve the future. In a Youngstown State University speech, Watson said, "The biggest advantage to believing in God is you don't have to understand anything, no physics, no biology. I wanted to understand" (The Vindicator, Dec. 2, 2003).

“Every time you understand something, religion becomes less likely. Only with the discovery of the double helix and the ensuing genetic revolution have we had grounds for thinking that the powers held traditionally to be the exclusive property of the gods might one day be ours. . . . 

[As a young man ] I came to the conclusion that the church was just a bunch of fascists that supported Franco. I stopped going on Sunday mornings and watched the birds with my father instead.”

—Dr. James Watson, London Telegraph, March 22, 2003

Compiled by Annie Laurie Gaylor

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