Francis Crick and James Watson: The Scientists Who Discovered the Structure of DNA

In 1953, two scientists—Francis Crick and James Watson—changed the world when they discovered the now-famous double-helix structure of DNA. The discovery of the genetic material’s structure has swept the globe, ushering in a wave of new genetic research and a boldly rational understandings of biology.

To commemorate the revolutionary discovery, this article takes a look at the lives, careers, and enduring legacies of the titular scientists, Francis Crick and James Watson.

Who were Francis Crick and James Watson?

Francis Crick and James Watson are two of the most famous scientists of the 20th century. They are jointly credited with discovering the double helix structure of the DNA molecule in 1953. Together, their work has shaped the way we view biology and the field of genetics.

Life of Francis Crick

Francis Crick was born on June 8, 1916 in England. He studied physics at University College London, where he also became a member of a secret discussion group focused on theorizing on the nature of “life” and “living matter.”

In 1949, Crick was invited to the Cavendish laboratory at the University of Cambridge, where he’d eventually meet James Watson and the duo would begin their work on the DNA molecule. But before his celebrated work on DNA, Crick worked on other research projects and rose quickly through the ranks of the scientific community. He held positions at the Strangeways Research Laboratory, the Medical Research Council, and the John Innes Horticultural Institution.

Crick is also famous for his prior research on the biological properties of proteins and viruses. This research paved the way for the discovery of the genetic code, as well as groundbreaking research in the field of neurology.

Crick passed away in 2004, but his work and legacy remain alive through the Crick-Watson medal and the Francis Crick Institute in London, which stands as a testament to his brilliant work in science and medicine.

Life of James Watson

James Watson is the other half of the iconic duo who is credited with co-discovering the double-helix structure of DNA. Watson was born on April 6, 1928 in Chicago, Illinois. His early love of birds, as well as a talent for science and mathematics, inspired him to pursue a career in biology.

At age 21, Watson was awarded a fellowship to travel to Copenhagen to study at the Royal Danish Air Force Institute of Aviation Medicine. From there, Watson went to the University of Indiana and received his Ph.D. in Zoology. In 1950 he moved to England to work at the Cavendish laboratory, where he met his soon-to-be-partner, Francis Crick.

Much like Crick, James Watson has been credited with ground-breaking scientific discoveries prior to his joint-work on DNA. His co-discovery of the double helix structure of DNA earned him the Nobel Prize in 1962 and solidified his place in scientific history. Watson is also known for his groundbreaking research in molecular biology, for his publications on the nature of genetic coding and for his contributions to the sequencing of the human genome.

How Did Crick and Watson Discover the Structure of DNA?

Francis Crick and James Watson discovered the double helix structure of the DNA molecule in 1953.

The two scientists had been researching for two years prior to the discovery, studying X-ray diffraction images taken of DNA by Rosalind Franklin and Maurice Wilkins. After working together piecing together the clues, they finally realized the structure of the DNA molecule and published their results in a seminal article called “A Structure for Deoxyribose Nucleic Acid.”

In the article, they stated that the double helix structure of DNA had four components: two strands of nucleic acid, three phosphates, and eight nitrogenous bases. This discovery revolutionized the field of genetics, providing a foundational understanding of the nature of DNA and the genetic code.

Key Contributions to Science by Crick and Watson

In addition to the DNA discovery, which was a quantum leap forward for science, Francis Crick and James Watson were responsible for several other notable contributions to science. It would take several articles to detail the breadth of their research and discoveries, but here are some of the highlights of their respective careers.


Crick studied the nature of proteins, viruses, and the DNA molecule, publishing a series of articles exploring his multidisciplinary research.

He also proposed the Central Dogma of Molecular Biology, which proposed that DNA is the source of genetic information, and that this information is transferred to RNA, which is then converted to proteins. His widely-cited papers on the Central Dogma are still used today in genetics and molecular biology.

Crick also developed the adaptor hypothesis, which provided the basis for understanding how genetic information is encoded and used to make proteins.


James Watson wrote extensively on the nature of genetics, exploring the complex interactions between genes, organisms and the environment. His writing on the relationship between genes and behavior is highly influential in the field of psychology.

Watson was also a leader in the field of recombinant-DNA research, developing a method for cutting and splicing genes to create new genes. This process, now known as genetic engineering, changed the way scientists understand the genetic code and use it to enhance plants, animals, and humans.

Watson’s research in recombinant DNA also marked an important step towards the development of gene therapy, which is used to treat genetic diseases and disorders.

The Enduring Significance of Crick and Watson’s Discovery

Francis Crick and James Watson’s discovery of the double helix structure of DNA is one of the most significant scientific advances of the 20th century and ushered in a new era of scientific research and understanding.

Their discovery opened the door to modern genetics, providing the basis for the development of recombinant DNA, gene therapy, and the Human Genome Project, among others. Their work has enabled scientists to understand how the genetic code works and how it can be used to modify living organisms for use in medicine, agriculture, and other applications.

The work of Francis Crick and James Watson has truly shaped the lives of millions of people around the world. Their discovery of the double-helix structure of DNA has given us an understanding of the complexity and beauty of life on a molecular level, and it stands as a lasting monument to the brilliance and dedication of these two scientists.