James Watson, Biologist
If I hadn’t gone to the University of Chicago, I would have never made the discovery [of the structure of DNA]. Chicago’s aim was to prepare you for greatness. It’s a presumptuous statement, but that’s what the president of the school would say. Chicago taught me to always ask why, to think like a scientist. I think I was the only person in the world educated to find the structure of DNA.
As a young boy, I’d go off by myself and watch birds. From about 12 on, my chief friends were books and birds. My father had given up religion in college, and when you give up one explanation, you need another. The truth of the matter is, I was looking for something to replace God. So I majored in zoology. A review in the Chicago Sun of a book called What Is Life? The Physical Aspect of the Living Cell was pivotal for me. It said the gene must be a molecule, and somehow this molecule must be copied and that there was information there.
Francis Crick was working on the structure of proteins at Cambridge when I began working in the lab there in 1951. We hit it off immediately. He was the first person I ever met whom I could talk to about DNA. We realized this in the first hour of meeting each other. Francis said, “Why did you come here?” And I said, “I saw an X-ray picture of DNA, and I realized that the essence of DNA was going to be found in an X-ray structure lab, not in a biochemist lab.”
You know, the moment someone saw Crick, they’d think, “He’s bright.” The moment someone saw me, they’d think, “He’s awkward.” By the time I got the Nobel Prize, in ’62, I was relaxed about myself. Success makes you confident. In 1968, I got married and I went up and gave a talk at Dartmouth. I realized I could speak on my feet; I could tell jokes. By that stage, I was Crick’s equal and not his inferior. People said I could lead.
Years after we graduated, an old classmate of mine from Chicago came up to me and said, “No one at Chicago ever thought you were going to be successful at all!”