Springer Nature is making SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19 research free. View research | View latest news | Sign up for updates

James D. Watson 88—the discovery of the double helix was an iconic event in structural chemistry

  • 487 Accesses

  • 1 Citations


The ingenuity of James D. Watson and Francis Crick, the convergence of the advances in X-ray crystallography, the accumulated knowledge of structural chemistry, and the breakthroughs in chemical methods of analysis led to the discovery of the double helix structure of DNA. The discovery catapulted Watson to a career that helped DNA and the applications of the knowledge about its structure triumph in biomedical sciences. Watson’s eighty-eighth birthday is an occasion to have a look at his path to success, his personality, and assess his legacy.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.

Photo 1
Photo 2
Photo 3
Photo 4
Photo 5
Photo 6


  1. 1.

    Watson JD, Crick FHC (1953) “A structure for deoxyribonucleic acid.” Nature 171:737–738

  2. 2.

    Hargittai I (2004) Our lives: encounters of a scientist. Akadémiai Kiadó, Budapest

  3. 3.

    Hargittai I (2007) The DNA Doctor: Candid Conversations with James D. Watson. World Scientific, Singapore

  4. 4.

    Watson JD (2007) Avoid boring people (lessons from a life in science). Alfred A. Knopf, New York, pp 343–347

  5. 5.

    Levi-Montalcini R (1988) In praise of imperfection: my life and work. Basic Books, New York, p 5

  6. 6.

    See, e.g., the notes by Max Perutz et al. (1969) In: Science June 27, pp 1537–1538, following the publication of Watson’s book The Double Helix

  7. 7.

    Watson JD (1965) Molecular biology of the gene, 1st edn. WA Benjamin, New York

  8. 8.

    Watson JD (1968) The double helix: a personal account of the discovery of the structure of DNA. Atheneum, New York

  9. 9.

    “Our Future Scientists (Panel Discussion).” (2009) The New York Academy of Sciences Magazine 2009 Spring, pp 22–24; actual quote, p 22

  10. 10.

    Medawar P (1982) “Lucky Jim.” In: Medawar P (ed) Pluto’s republic. Oxford University Press, Oxford, pp 270–278; actual quote, p 275

  11. 11.

    Brenner S (2003) “Jim and Syd.” In: Inglis JR, Sambrook J, Witkowski JA (eds) Inspiring science: Jim Watson and the age of DNA. Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press, Cold Spring Harbor, pp 67–69; actual quote, p 69

Download references


Magdi and I are grateful to Jim and Liz Watson for their friendship and hospitality extended to us over the years. I thank Robert Weintraub and Irwin Weintraub of Beersheva for critical reading of the manuscript and for helpful suggestions.

Author information

Correspondence to Istvan Hargittai.

Additional information


This Editorial is dedicated to the great scientific partnership of Francis Crick and James D. Watson on the occasion of Francis Crick’s birth centennial and Watson’s 88th birthday.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Hargittai, I. James D. Watson 88—the discovery of the double helix was an iconic event in structural chemistry. Struct Chem 27, 419–428 (2016).

Download citation


  • James D. Watson
  • Double helix
  • Francis Crick
  • DNA
  • Human Genome Project