J. Throck Watson was born in 1939 and grew up in small towns in Iowa. His father worked at the local school, and his mother stayed at home. Watson spent much of his childhood outdoors, playing with his brother and his cousins. In the summers, he helped his father and uncle harvest bluegrass. As a senior in high school, Watson took a chemistry class and found it so fascinating that he decided to major in chemistry at Iowa State University. He participated in a fraternity and worked with Harry J. Svec, who encouraged him to attend the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) for graduate school. As a Ph.D. student at MIT, Watson worked with Klaus Biemann on a mechanical project to use molecular effusion to remove partially the carrier gas in a combination gas chromatograph/mass spectrometer instrument. Upon graduation, Watson served three years in the US Air Force to fulfill his military commitment incurred due to his participation in ROTC during college, which was deferred during Watson’s time in graduate school. He was stationed at Brooks Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas, where he worked at the School of Aerospace Medicine. After his tour of duty was complete, Watson accepted a postdoctoral position at the Institut de Chimie, Université de Strasbourg in France where he learned practical organic mass spectrometry. At the time, the French were favorable toward the Americans, so Watson had a positive experience abroad, which reminded him of his summer job in Bavaria, Germany, during college when he worked as a farm laborer.
When the one-year postdoc ended, Watson accepted a professorship of pharmacology at Vanderbilt University where he taught pharmacology classes and worked on a book, Introduction to Mass Spectrometry. After gaining tenure at Vanderbilt, the director of the mass spectrometry facility at Michigan State University called Watson and told him he was stepping down and wanted Watson to take his place. Watson accepted the position on the condition that he would be part of the chemistry faculty, which was granted. At Michigan State, Watson had many graduate students. During a sabbatical, he worked with Christian Rolando in France. Of all of his contributions to science, he was most proud of his work with his graduate students at Michigan State. When a grant application was not renewed, he decided to retire and “go fishing.” Watson ends the interview by discussing hydrogen ions, instrumentation, working with graduate students, grants, professional societies like the American Chemical Society and the American Society for Mass Spectrometry, analytical chemistry, various colleagues, the origin of his middle name “Throck,” and the importance of his research today.