D. Watson and F. H. C. Crick”
no surprise that James D. Watson and Francis H. C. Crick spoke of finding
the structure of DNA within minutes of their first meeting at the Cavendish
Laboratory in Cambridge, England, in 1951. Watson, a 23-year-old geneticist,
and Crick, a 35-year-old former physicist studying protein structure for
his doctorate in biophysics, both saw DNA’s architecture as the
biggest question in biology. Knowing the structure of this molecule would
be the key to understanding how genetic information is copied. In turn,
this would lead to finding cures for human diseases.
Aware of these
profound implications, Watson and Crick were obsessed with the problem—and,
perhaps more than any other scientists, they were determined to find the
answer first. Their competitive spirit drove them to work quickly, and
it undoubtedly helped them succeed in their quest.
Crick’s rapport led them to speedy insights as well. They incessantly
discussed the problem, bouncing ideas off one another. This was especially
helpful because each one was inspired by different evidence. When the
visually sensitive Watson, for example, saw a cross-shaped pattern of
spots in an X-ray photograph of DNA, he knew DNA had to be a double helix.
From data on the symmetry of DNA crystals, Crick, an expert in crystal
structure, saw that DNA’s two chains run in opposite directions.
Since the groundbreaking
double helix discovery in 1953, Watson has used the same fast, competitive
approach to propel a revolution in molecular biology. As a professor at
Harvard in the 1950s and 1960s, and as past director and current president
of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, he tirelessly built intellectual arenas—groups
of scientists and laboratories—to apply the knowledge gained from
the double helix discovery to protein synthesis, the genetic code, and
other fields of biological research. By relentlessly pushing these fields
forward, he also advanced the view among biologists that solving major
health problems requires research at the most fundamental level of life.