James Watson was born in Chicago, Illinois in 1928. He received a B.S. in 1947 from the University of Chicago and a Ph.D. in 1950 from Indiana University, both in zoology. Following a National Research Fellowship in Copenhagen, he underwent research on a National Foundation of Infantile Paralysis Fellowship at the University of Cambridge, England, where he discovered the structure of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) with Francis Crick. Watson and Crick proposed that the DNA molecule takes the shape of a double helix, an elegantly simple structure that resembles a gently twisted ladder. This research emphasized a concept central to the emerging field of molecular biology: understanding the structure of a molecule can give clues about how it functions. Watson, Crick, and Maurice Wilkins at King's College in London, who confirmed the DNA structure using X-ray crystallography, shared the 1962 Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine for their discovery.

After his tenure at Cambridge, Watson spent two years at the California Institute of Technology. He joined the Harvard faculty in 1955 and became Professor in 1961. In 1968, while employed at Harvard, he became director of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. Watson resigned from Harvard in 1976 to become full-time director of CSHL. Under his direction, the renowned but financially endangered institution was revitalized. Watson steered the laboratory into the field of tumor virology, from which emerged our present understanding of oncogenes (cancer genes) and the molecular basis of cancer. From 1994-2003 he was President of CSHL, and Chancellor from 2003-2007. He retired in 2007 and now serves as Chancellor Emeritus of CSHL.

In 1988 Watson was appointed Associate Director for Human Genome Research of the National Institutes of Health and, in 1989, Director of the National Center for Human Genome Research at the NIH. In 1992, Watson resigned his position at NCHGR after successfully launching a worldwide effort to map and sequence the human genome.

James D. Watson has received many honors, including the John Collins Warren Prize of Massachusetts General Hospital (1959), the Eli Lilly Award in Biochemistry (1960), the Albert Lasker Prize, awarded by the American Public Health Association (1960), the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine (1962), the John J. Carty Gold Medal of the National Academy of Sciences (1971), the Presidential Medal of Freedom (1977), the Copley Medal of the British Royal Society (1993), the Charles A. Dana Distinguished Achievement Award in Health (1994), Lomonosov Medal, Russian Academy of Sciences (1995), the National Medal of Science awarded by the National Science Foundation (1997), the University of Chicago Medal (1998), the New York Academy of Medicine Award (1999), the University College London Prize (2000), the Liberty medal Award from the City of Philadelphia (2000), the Benjamin Franklin Medal for Distinguished Achievement in the Sciences (2001), an Honorary Knighthood of the British Empire (2002), and the Gairdner Award (2002).

His memberships include the American Society of Biological Chemists (1958) and the American Association for Cancer Research (1972). He holds honorary affiliations with the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (1958), the National Academy of Sciences (1962), the Danish Academy of Arts and Sciences (1963), Clare College, Cambridge University (1968), the American Philosophical Society (1977), Athenaeum, London (1980), the Royal Society, London (1981), the Academy of Sciences, Russia (1989), Oxford University (1994), National Academy of Sciences, Ukraine (1995), University College Galway, the Society of Saints & Scholars (1995), Institute of Biology, London (1995), the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (1996), the Royal Society of Edinburgh (1999), and the National Academy of Sciences, India (2001).

Dr. Watson has received honorary degrees from 32 universities and has published nine books: The Molecular Biology of the Gene (1965, 1970, 1976, 1987), The Double Helix (1968), The DNA Story (1981), The Molecular Biology of the Cell (1983, 1989, 1994), Recombinant DNA: A Short Course (1983, 1992), A Passion for DNA (2000), Genes, Girls, and Gamow: After the Double Helix (2002), DNA: The Secret of Life (2003), and Avoid Boring People: Lessons from a Life in Science (2007).

He is married to the former Elizabeth Lewis, with whom he has two sons, Rufus and Duncan.