[Paleopsych] NYT: Francis Crick, Co-Discoverer of DNA, Dies at 88
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Fri Jul 30 14:59:59 UTC 2004
Francis Crick, Co-Discoverer of DNA, Dies at 88
New York Times, 4.7.30
[I have not tested these links.]
A collection of articles about Francis Crick's work in molecular
biology and the discovery of the DNA structure.
A Revolution at 50
DNA, the keeper of life's secrets, starts to talk.
Clue to Chemistry of Heredity Is Found (June 13, 1953; pdf
By NICHOLAS WADE
Francis H. C. Crick, co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, the
genetic blueprint for life, and the leading molecular biologist of his
age, died on Wednesday night in a hospital in San Diego. He was 88.
He died after a long battle with colon cancer, said Andrew
Porterfield, a spokesman for the Salk Institute, where he worked.
Dr. Crick laid the foundations of molecular biology in a sustained
burst of creativity that began in 1953 with the discovery of the
structure of DNA, the hereditary material, in Cambridge, England, and
ended about 13 years later with the subject's primary problems solved,
most of them either by Dr. Crick or by scientists in his circle.
The discovery of the structure of DNA resolved longstanding questions
about the nature of the hereditary material and the manner in which it
is copied as one generation succeeds another. The proposal for the
structure, almost immediately accepted, was electrifying to scientists
not only because of its inherent elegance but also because it showed
how biology, evolution and the nature of life itself could ultimately
be explained in terms of physics and chemistry. Indeed, the desire to
replace religious with rational explanations of life was a principal
motivation of Dr. Crick's career.
So central is DNA to biology that the names of Francis H. C. Crick and
James D. Watson, his American colleague in the discovery, may be
remembered as long as those of Darwin and Mendel, the architects of
the two pillars of modern biology, the theory of evolution and the
laws of genetics.
Some consequences of understanding the structure of DNA are already
familiar, from linking suspects to crime scene evidence to
manipulating it to make genetically engineered crops. But these are
just foretastes of a gene-based medical revolution that is expected to
unfold in the years ahead now that the human genome - about three
billion units of DNA, encoding all the biological information needed
to generate and maintain a living person - has been deciphered.
Dr. Crick was a scientist with a thirst to understand and a talent for
productive friendships. It was his two-year collaboration with Dr.
Watson that made possible the discovery of the structure of DNA, a
feat that each has said he would not have accomplished without the
other. After Dr. Watson returned to the United States, Dr. Crick's
close collaborator for many years was Sydney Brenner, with whom he
solved the nature of the genetic code.
Dr. Crick occupied a rarely paralleled position of intellectual
leadership in the early years of molecular biology. In intense efforts
to explore beyond the door opened by the discovery of DNA, biologists
from Paris to Pasadena, were drawn into a pursuit that at every stage
was shaped by Francis Crick.
"By brain, wit, vigor of personality, strength of voice, intellectual
charm and scorn, a lot of travel, and ceaseless letter-writing, Crick
coordinated the research of many other biologists, disciplined their
thinking, arbitrated their conflicts, communicated and explained their
results," the historian Horace Freeland Judson wrote in "The Eighth
Day of Creation."
The French biologist Jacques Monod told Mr. Judson: "No one man
discovered or created molecular biology. But one man dominates
intellectually the whole field, because he knows the most and
understands the most. Francis Crick."
A unforgettable portrait of Francis Crick was drawn by Dr. Watson in
"The Double Helix," his best-selling account of their discovery. Mr.
Crick was unknown at the time, pursuing his Ph.D. at the advanced age
of 35. But the lack of this credential did not diminish his confidence
in his own abilities.
"I have never seen Francis Crick in a modest mood," Dr. Watson wrote
in the first sentence of his book.
He described Mr. Crick's animated conversation, his manic laughter,
his habit, infuriating to colleagues, of pumping them for their data
and showing them what it meant.
"Conversation with Crick," Dr. Watson wrote, "frequently upset Sir
Lawrence Bragg," the director of the Cavendish Laboratory in
Cambridge, where Mr. Crick then worked, "and the sound of his voice
was often sufficient to make Bragg move to a safer room."
Yet Dr. Watson's vivid portrait held elements of caricature. Mr.
Crick's immodesty did not extend beyond the realm of intellectual
"Rather than believe that Watson and Crick made the DNA structure, I
would rather stress that the structure made Watson and Crick," Dr.
Crick wrote diffidently in a memoir, "What Mad Pursuit."
On the day of the discovery, Dr. Watson asserted, "Francis winged into
the Eagle," the dingy Cambridge pub where they lunched every day, "to
tell everyone within hearing distance that we had found the secret of
Dr. Crick did not remember that incident, he has written, but he did
recall going home and telling his wife, Odile, that he seemed to have
made a big discovery. Years later, he continued, Odile told him that
she had not believed a word of it, saying, "'You were always coming
home and saying things like that, so naturally I thought nothing of
Rejected Tenured Position
Francis Harry Compton Crick was born on June 8, 1916, in Northampton,
England, where his father and uncle ran a boot and shoe factory
founded by their father. He studied physics at University College,
London, and after a short period researching the viscosity of water
under high pressure (in his view "the dullest problem imaginable"), he
was drawn by World War II into military research, working on the
design of magnetic and acoustic mines. He did so well at this job that
after the war, Dr. R. V. Jones, the head of Britain's wartime
scientific intelligence, wanted Mr. Crick to succeed him. But Mr.
Crick chose research.
"Looking back, it was absurd because I had a tenured job," he said in
a recent interview. Finding himself at loose ends after the war, he
decided the most interesting research problem lay in trying to
understand the physical basis of life, the division between the living
and the nonliving. The choice eventually drew him to the Cavendish
Laboratory in Cambridge, one of the world's leading centers for
studying the structure of proteins by X-ray analysis. At 35, he
started working for his Ph.D. on the structure of proteins.
Proteins were already understood to be the cell's working parts, and
Mr. Crick began with studying the structure of hemoglobin, the
oxygen-carrying pigment of the blood. He worked in a branch of the
Cavendish, the Medical Research Council unit, headed by Dr. Max F.
Perutz. Well before his thesis was finished, however, he realized that
a far more interesting problem was the structure of deoxyribonucleic
acid, or DNA. A classic experiment of 1944 had pointed to DNA as the
genetic material. But biologists had made almost no progress since
then in understanding how DNA might store hereditary information and
few were actively working on the problem.
Mr. Crick's life was changed one day in October 1951 when a Dr.
Watson, a 23-year old American biologist, walked into his life. Dr.
Watson also understood that the structure of DNA was the key to
everything. Neither was supposed to be working on DNA, but they at
once fell into discussing how the problem might be approached, in
conversations so sustained that the pair were given their own small
office at the Cavendish laboratory so their voices would not disturb
"Jim and I hit it off immediately," Dr. Crick later wrote, "partly
because our interests were astonishingly similar and partly, I
suspect, because a certain youthful arrogance, a ruthlessness and an
impatience with sloppy thinking came naturally to both of us."
Their approach, copied from the great chemist Linus Pauling, then at
the California Institute of Technology, was to build exact scale
models of the DNA that would be compatible with the limited
information available from X-ray crystallography, a method of probing
a chemical's structure with X-rays. A political difficulty was that
the problem of DNA's structure had been assigned to another scientist,
Maurice H. F. Wilkins of King's College, London. Under the etiquette
of British science, to Dr. Watson's amazement, no one else was
supposed to muscle in on it.
But Dr. Wilkins, a wartime friend of Mr. Crick's, said he did not
object to his trying a model. Dr. Watson and Mr. Crick soon had one
ready. It was based, in part, on X-ray data about DNA obtained by Dr.
Wilkins's colleague, Dr. Rosalind Franklin. Dr. Watson had heard Dr.
Franklin describe these data in a public lecture but had misunderstood
For their model, Mr. Crick and Dr. Watson constructed the backbone of
the DNA molecule in the form of a spiral, or helix, with the winding
chains held together in the middle by metal ions. The bases, the four
chemical subunits that spell out the genetic information, pointed
outward from the chains because the two researchers could see no way
that the necessarily irregular sequence of bases would match together
neatly if they pointed inward.
With the model completed, Mr. Crick invited Dr. Wilkins and Dr.
Franklin to Cambridge to inspect their progress. Dr. Franklin
instantly recognized a glaring error, and a few days later Dr. Bragg,
embarrassed by the debacle, ordered Mr. Crick to do no more work on
Nonetheless, Mr. Crick and Dr. Watson kept thinking about the problem
and a few months later were able to reverse Dr. Bragg's prohibition.
The precipitating event was the announcement by Linus Pauling, who was
Dr. Bragg's peer and rival, that he had found the solution to the
structure of DNA. Mr. Crick and Dr. Watson knew that Pauling's
solution was wrong, but believed it might be only days before Pauling
realized his error and seized on the solution.
In their second attempt, Mr. Crick and Dr. Watson picked up several
important clues. As part of a reporting system designed to share
information among laboratories supported by the British Medical
Research Council, Mr. Crick came to see a correct version of the X-ray
data that Dr. Franklin had reported at the lecture attended by Dr.
Watson. Although Dr. Franklin had insisted that these data proved DNA
could not be a helix, Mr. Crick understood that they proved the
opposite and that the two chains were antiparallel, in other words
that the head of one was always laid against the tail of the other.
The two biologists had also belatedly learned of Chargaff's rules,
named for Erwin Chargaff, a longtime student of DNA at Columbia
University. The four bases that occur in DNA are known as adenine,
guanine, thymine and cytosine, or A, G, T and C for short. Chargaff
had discovered that from whatever organism DNA was isolated, A and T
were found in roughly equal quantities, as were G and C.
Ingredients in Place
From Jerry Donohue, an experienced American chemist who happened then
to be sharing their office, Mr. Crick and Dr. Watson also learned the
true chemical structures of the DNA bases and the fact that the
structures shown in current textbooks were incorrect.
The ingredients for the discovery were now all in place. With the
right structures in hand, Dr. Watson was one day playing with
cardboard cutouts of the four bases when he noticed that an A-T pair
on his small desk was identical in shape with a G-C pair. He
immediately perceived how the bases could point inward, holding the
spiral staircase together with steps of always equal width, provided
that adenine always paired with thymine, and guanine with cytosine.
The pairing rule at once explained the equivalences of Chargaff's
rules and, more critically, how one DNA chain could serve as the
template for building another, the essential requirement for any
molecule that embodied hereditary information.
"That morning," Mr. Judson wrote in "The Eighth Day of Creation,''
"Watson and Crick knew, although still in mind only, the entire
structure: it had emerged from the shadow of billions of years,
absolute and simple, and was seen and understood for the first time."
In his memoir, Dr. Crick said: "It's true that by blundering about we
stumbled on gold, but the fact remains that we were looking for gold.
Both of us had decided, quite independently of each other, that the
central problem in molecular biology was the chemical structure of the
gene." No other scientists were pursuing the structure with such
It took only a few days to build the model dictated by their new
concepts. This time it convinced everyone because it explained
"It has not escaped our notice," Mr. Crick wrote in a lapidary
conclusion to their report of April 25, 1953, in the journal Nature,
"that the specific pairing we have postulated immediately suggests a
possible copying mechanism for the genetic material."
After making the discovery and completing the requirements for his
Ph.D., Dr. Crick plunged into the problems now made accessible by the
new structure. How did the sequence of bases in DNA determine the
sequence of amino acids in the ribbon-like structure of each protein
molecule? How was the information copied from DNA and transferred to
the cell's protein-synthesizing centers?
Though many scientists played important roles in solving this array of
problems, the guiding intelligence at almost all points was Dr.
Crick's. It was he, for example, who first realized there could be
only a specific number of amino acids, the building blocks of
proteins. Scanning the confused biochemical literature, he drew up the
canonical list of the 20 acids.
With his colleague Sydney Brenner, Dr. Crick eventually proved, in an
experiment of remarkable elegance, that the genetic code was a
comma-less, triplet code in which a set of three bases determines an
amino acid unit and a string of triplets thereby specifies the full
sequence of amino acids in a protein chain. The Crick-Brenner
experiment essentially consisted of deleting bases, one by one, in the
DNA of bacteria and showing that only after three bases had been
eliminated in close proximity did the DNA-transcribing system come
back into correct phase.
In a conversation in 1960 with the French biologist Francois Jacob,
Dr. Crick and Dr. Brenner recognized the long-puzzling identity of the
messenger chemical, now known as messenger RNA, that distributes
copies of the genetic information in the cell's nucleus to the
protein-making apparatus in the cell's periphery.
In another insight of remarkable power, Dr. Crick in his "adaptor
hypothesis," divined that there must exist both a class of carrier
molecules that recognize triplets of bases on the messenger and
adaptor enzymes that link each kind of amino acid to its appropriate
carrier. Biochemists ridiculed the idea, saying that if the adaptor
enzymes existed, they would already have found them. But both the
transfer RNA's and the adaptor enzymes proved to exist, as Dr. Crick
Dr. Crick derived several sweeping theories that have stood the test
of time. He assumed from the start that the genetic code was universal
to all forms of life, as indeed with trivial exceptions it has proved
to be. His "central dogma" formulated the view that once genetic
information had passed into protein, it could not get out again. The
dogma meant that the genetic message was impenetrable by information
from outside the cell, thus excluding the Lamarckian thesis that
acquired characteristics could be inherited.
Nobel Prizes for Three
In 1962, Dr. Crick, Dr. Watson and Maurice Wilkins received the Nobel
Prize in medicine for their work on DNA. Dr. Wilkins and Dr. Franklin
had contributed the X-ray data that suggested and confirmed the
structure of DNA, but Dr. Franklin died of leukemia in 1958.
The discovery of DNA brought unwelcome attention, too. In 1967 Dr.
Crick read a draft of Dr. Watson's account of their discovery, "The
Double Helix." The memoir, which then bore the working title "Honest
Jim,'' was a startling departure from the usual staid accounts of
laboratory life. After its opening declaration about Dr. Crick's lack
of modesty it adroitly portrayed the participants' feelings as the
helter-skelter pursuit of DNA wound to its resolution. Dr. Crick
viewed the gossipy narrative as a betrayal of their friendship, a
violation of his privacy and a distortion of their methods and
motives. He was unsuccessful in efforts to prevent the book's
Dr. Crick later came to terms with his colleague's account.
"In those days there was a different convention, at least in Britain,
about writing about your friends," he said in an interview in 2003.
"But I came out of the book quite well, apart from the first sentence.
As Peter Medawar said, the person who comes out worst is Jim."
One of the problems caused by the book was Dr. Watson's implication
that the pair of them had obtained Dr. Franklin's data on DNA
surreptitiously and hence had deprived her of due credit for the DNA
discovery. Dr. Crick believed he obtained the data fairly since she
had presented it at a public lecture, to which he had been invited.
Though Dr. Watson had misreported a vital figure from the lecture, a
correct version reached Dr. Crick through the Medical Research Council
report. If Dr. Franklin felt Dr. Crick had treated her unfairly, she
never gave any sign of it. She became friends with both Dr. Crick and
Dr. Watson and spent her last remission from cancer in Dr. Crick's
Dr. Crick gave his younger colleague no equivalent cause for
complaint. Dr. Watson acknowledged the selflessness of Dr. Crick's
"Francis was always so kind to me," he said in an interview in 1998.
"He never tried to promote himself. He was just interested in solving
By 1966, the first era of biology at the molecular level was complete.
Though many details of enormous interest remained to be discovered,
the foundations had been well and truly laid. Dr. Crick and Dr.
Brenner decided to move on to another vast field of biology, the
manner in which a whole organism develops from the fertilized egg.
In 1977 Dr. Crick left Cambridge, and his well-known house on Portugal
Place, with its golden helix above the front door, where he and Odile
had held many high-spirited parties. The Cricks moved to the Salk
Institute in San Diego. There he took on another challenging unsolved
problem of biology: the nature of consciousness.
He had little expectation of producing any radically new ideas at age
72, he wrote in 1988, "but at my time of life I had a right to do
things for my own amusement." Never one to let his mind lie fallow,
Dr. Crick produced a stream of papers about aspects of the brain and a
well-regarded popular book in 1994, "The Astonishing Hypothesis,"
which summarized his ideas.
Another diversion that Dr. Crick allowed himself was a bold
speculation about the origin of life. Only the most eminent and secure
of scientists would dare flirt with the idea that earth may have been
seeded with life by a rocket ship from another planet. But that
possibility, a thesis Dr. Crick termed "Directed Panspermia," was
aired in an article he published in the journal Icarus (1973) with his
Salk Institute colleague Leslie E. Orgel and in a popular book by Dr.
Crick alone, "Life Itself" (1981).
Dr. Crick in no way rejected the orthodox scientific thesis that life
evolved in some way, yet to be specified, from the chemicals present
on the early earth. But he was impressed by the unexplained
universality of the genetic code and uncomfortable with the narrow
window of time between the date the earth cooled enough to be
habitable and the first appearance of life in the fossil record. With
"Directed Panspermia," he prepared, in effect, an intellectual escape
hatch, an alternative explanation for life should scientists in fact
find it too hard to account plausibly for the remarkably rapid
emergence of earth's first life forms.
Dr. Crick's style of practicing science was unusual. Most biologists
do experiments; he did so very rarely, being one of biology's few
theoreticians. He did not take graduate students, preferring instead
to work with a single colleague. His scientific interlocutors were,
after Dr. Watson, Dr. Brenner during the Golden Age of molecular
biology, and Dr. Christof Koch, for his work on the brain.
"Francis essentially works alone but likes to have a colleague to play
against, so to speak," Dr. Brenner said recently.
Dr. Crick wrote little about his own life and, despite his fame,
remained a surprisingly private person. His first marriage, to Ruth
Doreen Dodd, ended in divorce in 1947. He is survived by his wife, the
former Odile Speed, an artist; a son from his first marriage, Michael
F. C. Crick of Seattle; and by two daughters from his second marriage,
Gabrielle A. Crick and Jacqueline M-T Crick Nichols, both of England;
and four grandchildren.
What is the nature of scientific genius? Dr. Crick was perhaps
offering an answer in his response to a different question, that of
whether he enjoyed his life.
"I cannot do better," he said, than to quote from a lecture by the
painter John Minton "in which he said of his own artistic creations,
'The important thing is to be there when the picture is painted.' And
this, it seems to me, is partly a matter of luck and partly good
judgment, inspiration and persistent application."
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