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Laboratory and Course Notebooks

Part of
James D. Watson Collection
  • Archives and manuscripts

About this work


This series consists of James D. Watson’s handwritten graduate school course notebooks and laboratory research notebooks between 1947 and 1951. It is divided into three subseries: Ph.D. Courses and Dissertation Research (JDW/2/6/1), Indiana University; 1947-1950, Copenhagen Laboratory Research, 1950-1951 (JDW/2/6/2); California Institute of Technology, 1953-1955 (JDW/2/6/3); Harvard Medical School Research, 1956-1966 (JDW/2/6/4). The series is arranged chronologically.

The contents reflect Watson's professional education and employment. In 1947, Watson began graduate work for his doctoral degree at Indiana University at the age of 19 with the initial goal of studying with Hermann J. Muller. In his first year of study, he enrolled in a course called Bacteriology 258a-"Viruses" taught by geneticist Salvador E. Luria. According to A Passion for DNA, Watson was drawn to Luria because they both shared the hope that learning more about bacteriophages would lead to an understanding of the nature of the gene. Before the end of his first term, Watson approached Luria with the proposal to do research under him and was quickly accepted as Luria's first experiment at dissertation supervision. Luria had been working on the problem of using ultraviolet light to create genetically damaged bacteria and had instructed Watson to look at a the related question of "whether phages inactivated by X-rays gave any multiplicity reaction. Much of Watson's doctoral research was an extension of Luria's own research. The specific question was how to inhibit or stop the ability of viruses from multiplying, either by inactivating the bacteriophages themselves or by creating resistant strains of bacteria. Luria had observed that small units of UV-damaged, inactivated phage particles reassembled with many active ones to regain their infectious nature. He called this process multiplicity reactivation. Calculating the number of these smaller units in various phages, Luria felt, was essential to understanding the replication process. Studying the multiplication process and being able to control it, by stopping (inactivation, interference) and starting it (reactivation), are the main activities documented in Watson's dissertation research files.

While most of the research was conducted in Bloomington, additional work was done at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (summer 1948 and spring 1949), Memorial Hospital in New York City (summer 1948), as well as the California Institute of Technology (summer 1949). The findings from all four locations culminated in Watson's June 15, 1950 doctoral dissertation, The Biological Properties of X-ray Inactivated Bacteriophage.

After completion of his dissertation in 1950, Watson headed to Copenhagen for a year to continue his study of phage replication in the laboratory of Herman Kalckar. However, he and Gunther Stent left Kalckar's laboratory to work instead with Ole Maaløe. Here, Watson set out to determine whether there were two types of DNA, one type which carried genetic material and one type that did not. To accomplish this, he used radioactive isotopes of phosphorous and carbon to be able to observe what material was transferred from the original phage to its progeny.

In late 1953 Watson took a position at the California Institute of Technology, or Caltech for short. Here he continued to work on DNA, while at the same time began focusing on the problems presented by RNA.

In 1956 Watson joined the faculty at Harvard University to teach courses in Zoology. From 1958 to 1961, he conducted additional laboratory research Harvard Medical School. This focused research consisted of experiments done with viruses believed to cause cancer, such as the Papilloma virus. After this research Watson's attention turned to messenger RNA, and not until he returned to Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, did his interest in pursuing the viral causes of cancer resume.



Physical description

6 boxes

Copyright note

Please note that CSHL holds copyright in writings by Watson that are held within Watson's archive in the CSHL Library and Archives, but does not hold copyright in Watson's writings held outside the CSHL Library and Archives. Copyright of material created by persons other than Watson, published or unpublished, is retained by its original author or rightsholder.

Location of duplicates

A digitised copy is held by the Wellcome Library as part of Codebreakers: Makers of Modern Genetics.

Terms of use

Open and available at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Library and Archives.

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