In 1953, at just 24 years old, James Watson made a discovery that brought him lifelong fame.
At Cavendish Laboratory, he and Francis Crick were the first to map the double helix, the structure of DNA. Years before that, Watson learned curiosity, patience and perseverance on bird-watching trips with his father, James D. Watson, Sr.
An avid bird-watcher, Watson Sr. attended Oberlin College because they offered a class on birds (he was expelled from Oberlin after only one year due to poor grades resulting from a battle with scarlet fever). The father and son would ride the streetcar from their home on Chicago’s South Side to Jackson Park, looking for certain feather patterns and listening for certain calls. From an early age, Watson learned biology was a science to be actively engaged with, something to be pursued and keenly observed.
“I was encouraged by my father to think,” he says.
His new book, “Father to Son: Truth, Reason, and Decency,” focuses on the Watson family legacy. What started as a project to catalog his late father’s memorabilia expanded to include generations of Watson history. The discoveries proved fascinating: Watson’s relatives panned for gold and rubbed elbows with Abraham Lincoln, playing quiet but essential roles in American history. “I think we may have the gene for being liberal or progressive,” Watson says. “We don’t want someone else telling us what to do.”
Though Watson will always remain famous for his major contributions in genetics and cancer research, he has also been a prolific author, with a number of titles ranging from memoirs to scientific textbooks. His 1968 autobiography, “The Double Helix,” was named No. 7 in the Modern Library’s Top 100 Nonfiction Books of the Twentieth Century.
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