Chicago native and winner of the 1962 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine James Dewey Watson will receive the 2007 Alumni Medal and deliver the Alumni Convocation address at 10:30 a.m. Saturday, June 2, in Rockefeller Memorial Chapel, 5850 S. Woodlawn, at the University of Chicago.
Other members of Chicago’s alumni community, who will be honored at convocation for their service to the University and to the communities in which they live and work, also will be honored. The ceremony is free and open to the public.
Created in 1941, the University of Chicago Alumni Medal is awarded to recognize achievement of an exceptional nature in any field, vocational or voluntary, covering an entire career. It is the highest honor the Alumni Association can bestow. Because the value of the medal is defined by its recipients, it has been given sparingly. The medal is awarded to no more than one person each year and need not be awarded on an annual basis.
Watson (S.B.,’47), is the father of modern genetics and one of the most influential scientists of the 20th Century. Born and raised in Chicago, he received a scholarship to the University (at the age of 15), where his boyhood interest in bird watching blossomed into a serious study of genetics. Watson, who did his graduate studies at Indiana University, earned a Ph.D. in zoology in 1950.
In 1951, Watson began work at the University of Cambridge’s Cavendish Laboratory and entered an arena where scientists were racing to determine the structure of DNA. X-ray crystallography experiments already had determined that DNA was a molecule in which two strands formed a tightly linked pair, and Watson and his research partner Francis Crick proposed that the structure of DNA was a winding helix in which pairs of bases (adenine paired with thymine and guanine paired with cytosine) held the two strands together. This groundbreaking work won Watson and Crick, and their colleague Maurice Wilkins, the 1962 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, awarded “for their discoveries concerning the molecular structure of nucleic acids and its significance for information transfer in living material.”
Watson chronicled the excitement of this discovery in his book The Double Helix, which has inspired generations of scientists to pursue cutting-edge research. In addition to his Nobel, he has been awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, a National Medal of Science and an honorary doctorate of science from Chicago.
From 1956 to 1976, Watson was a member of the Harvard biology department, where his major research interest was the role of RNA in protein synthesis. He also has made considerable contributions to the understanding of the genetic code. Watson was named associate director of the National Center for Human Genome Research in 1988 and became director in 1989. The center successfully sequenced the human genome in its entirety and was by far the most ambitious, generously funded endeavor in the history of biology.
In 1994, Watson was named president and subsequently became chancellor of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in Long Island, N.Y., where he is an accomplished administrator and bold advocate for basic research in science.