American Masters: Decoding Watson - About

James Watson, the Man Behind the Double Helix, Confronts His Complex Legacy in New Documentary

Premiering Wednesday, January 2 at 10 p.m. on PBS (check local listings). Streams beginning January 3 at pbs.org/americanmasters and PBS apps

Thrust into the limelight for discovering the secret of life at age 25 with Francis Crick, influential Nobel Prize-winning scientist James Watson has thrived on making headlines ever since. His discovery of DNA’s structure, the double helix, revolutionized human understanding of how life works. He was a relentless and sometimes ruthless visionary who led the Human Genome project and turned Harvard University and Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory into powerhouses of molecular biology. With unprecedented access to Watson, his wife Elizabeth and sons Rufus and Duncan over the course of a year, American Masters explores Watson’s evolution from socially awkward postdoc to notorious scientific genius to discredited nonagenarian, also interviewing his friends, his colleagues, scientists and historians. Controversial and unapologetic, Watson still thrives on competition and disruption. The film uncovers his signature achievements, complexities and contradictions, including his penchant for expressing unfiltered and objectionable points of view. Directed and produced by Mark Mannucci.

Film Interviewees

  • Sydney Brenner, Salk Institute for Biological Studies 2002 Nobel Laureate
  • Francis Collins, Director, National Institutes of Health
  • Nathaniel Comfort, Science Historian, Johns Hopkins University
  • Robert Cook-Deegan, Author of “The Gene Wars;” Professor, Arizona State University
  • Soraya De Chadarevian, Department of History, Institute for Society and Genetics, UCLA
  • Joseph Graves, Jr., Evolutionary Biologist & Author, North Carolina A&T State University
  • Nancy Hopkins, Molecular Biologist, MIT
  • Andrea Morris, Molecular Biologist; Administrator, Rockefeller University
  • Laura Otis, Professor of English, Emory University
  • Joan Steitz, Molecular Biologist, Yale University
  • Bruce Stillman, President & Cancer Researcher, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory
  • Lloyd Trotman, Cancer Researcher, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory
  • Duncan Watson, James Watson’s son
  • Elizabeth Watson, James Watson’s wife
  • James Watson
  • Rufus Watson, James Watson’s son
  • Carl Zimmer, Author & Columnist, The New York Times

Noteworthy Facts

  • American Masters: Decoding Watson is the first interview in which James Watson’s wife, Elizabeth, has spoken candidly and at length about their relationship and their son Rufus’ schizophrenia. The film is also the first time Rufus Watson has been interviewed for a film.
  • 2018 marks the 50th anniversary of James Watson’s controversial, bestselling book “The Double Helix: A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA” (1968).
  • April 6, 1928: James Watson is born in Chicago.
  • In 1943, James Watson enters the University of Chicago at age 15. He’s convinced he wants to study ornithology, but after reading Erwin Schrödinger’s book “What is Life,” he switches his focus to genetics. He graduates in 1947 with a B.S. in Zoology.
  • In 1950, James Watson completes his Ph.D. in Zoology at Indiana University. He then moves to Copenhagen, and spends a year studying viruses.
  • In May 1951, James Watson attends a symposium in Naples where he meets Maurice Wilkins, a British physicist who is working on DNA. Watson attends a talk by Wilkins, where he sees an x-ray image of DNA for the first time.
  • In September 1951, James Watson moves to Cambridge University and begins working in the Cavendish Laboratory under Max Perutz. He meets Francis Crick, with whom he forms an immediate bond. Over the next two years, they gather clues and build models to try and elucidate the structure of DNA, life’s building blocks.
  • February 28, 1953: James Watson and Francis Crick discover DNA’s structure, the double helix, made up of four chemical bases that unzip and replicate to form identical new strands of genetic material. Watson is only 25 years old. A key piece of data that lead to Watson and Crick’s discovery was one of X-ray crystallographer Rosalind Franklin’s photographs of DNA. Franklin’s colleague Maurice Wilkins showed Watson the photograph without her permission.
  • In 1956, James Watson accepts a position in the biology department at Harvard University, and creates a thriving molecular biology department. His influential textbook “Molecular Biology of the Gene” revolutionizes the writing style of future science textbooks.
  • April 16, 1958: Rosalind Franklin dies from cancer at the age of 37.
  • In 1961, James Watson becomes a full professor of the Harvard biology department. His former students describe him as a highly competitive, eccentric mentor. He remains on the faculty until 1976.
  • In 1962, James Watson, Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins receive the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine. Watson and Crick share the prize with Wilkins in recognition of his initial work on X-ray diffraction, as well as his follow-up work in verifying the double helix model they proposed. Rosalind Franklin does not receive a posthumous prize. Nobel Prize rules prohibit splitting prizes more than three ways.
  • February 1968: James Watson becomes director of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in Long Island, New York. Under his leadership the lab becomes a world leader in cancer research.
  • March 1968: James Watson marries Elizabeth Lewis, a medical student working in his Harvard office. 2018 marks the couple’s 50th wedding anniversary. Their son Rufus is born in 1970; their son Duncan is born in 1972.
  • In 1977, James Watson receives the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Gerald Ford.
  • May 1986: James Watson brings together the world’s leading geneticists to discuss the possibility of mapping the human genome. However, Watson misses the seminal meeting to be with his son Rufus, who is experiencing symptoms of psychosis related to his schizophrenia. Watson says his passion for the Human Genome Project was largely inspired by his family and need to understand the genetic basis of mental illness.
  • In 1989, the National Center for Human Genome Research (NCHGR) is established to carry out the National Institutes of Health’s (NIH) component of the Human Genome Project. James Watson is appointed as NCHGR’s first director.
  • In the early 1990s, James Watson gets into a public spat with his boss, Bernadine Healy, director of NIH. Healy is in favor of patenting genes. Watson is opposed to patenting genes, arguing that the information being generated by the Human Genome Project should belong to everyone.
  • In 1992, James Watson resigns as director of the National Center for Human Genome Research.
  • In 2003, the Human Genome Project is successfully completed, determining the sequence of billions of DNA fragments that are the recipe for humankind.
  • In June 2007, James Watson becomes the first person to have his genome fully sequenced for less than $1 million. He publishes the results online for free with the hope of encouraging future discoveries.
  • In October 2007, James Watson’s remarks about race and intelligence in The Sunday Times Magazine cause an international uproar. As a result, he is suspended as Chancellor of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory.
  • In 2014, James Watson auctions his Nobel Prize for $4.1 million. It is purchased by Russian billionaire Alisher Usmanov who returns the medal to Watson.
  • April 6, 2018: James Watson celebrates his 90th birthday at Cold Spring Habor Laboratory, where he works as Chancellor Emeritus.

Production Credits

A production of ROOM 608 INC. and THIRTEEN Productions LLC’s American Masters for WNET. Directed and produced by Mark Mannucci. Hannah Meagher is co-producer. Alex Ricciardi is editor. Scott Sinkler is director of photography. For ROOM 608 INC., Jonathan Halperin is executive producer. For American Masters, Michael Kantor is executive producer.

Underwriters

Major support for American Masters: Decoding Watson is provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities. Additional support is provided by The Anderson Family Fund and Gerry Ohrstrom. Production support is provided by Mannuccio Mannucci. Major support for American Masters is provided by AARP. Additional support is provided by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Rosalind P. Walter, The Philip and Janice Levin Foundation, Ellen and James S. Marcus, Judith and Burton Resnick, Vital Projects Fund, Cheryl and Philip Milstein Family, the Blanche & Irving Laurie Foundation, the André and Elizabeth Kertész Foundation, Seton Melvin, Lillian Goldman Programming Endowment, and public television viewers.