[Paleopsych] NYT: Francis Crick, Co-Discoverer of DNA, Dies at 88

Premise Checker checker at panix.com
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.]

    [27]Francis Crick
    A collection of articles about Francis Crick's work in molecular
    biology and the discovery of the DNA structure.
    [31]Interactive Feature
    [33]A Revolution at 50
    DNA, the keeper of life's secrets, starts to talk.

    [34]Clue to Chemistry of Heredity Is Found (June 13, 1953; pdf


    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
    everyone else.

    "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
    had predicted.

    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."


   27. http://www.nytimes.com/pages/health/healthspecial/index.html?8dpc
   28. http://www.nytimes.com/pages/health/healthspecial/index.html?8dpc
   29. http://www.nytimes.com/pages/health/healthspecial/index.html?8dpc
   30. http://www.nytimes.com/pages/multimedia/index.html?8dpc
   34. http://www.nytimes.com/packages/pdf/science/dna-article.pdf
   35. http://query.nytimes.com/search/query?ppds=per&v1=CRICK%2C+FRANCIS&fdq=19960101&td=sysdate&sort=newest&ac=CRICK%2C+FRANCIS&rt=1%2Cdes%2Corg%2Cper%2Cgeo
   36. http://query.nytimes.com/search/query?ppds=des&v1=DEATHS+%28OBITUARIES%29&fdq=19960101&td=sysdate&sort=newest&ac=DEATHS+%28OBITUARIES%29&rt=1%2Cdes%2Corg%2Cper%2Cgeo
   37. http://query.nytimes.com/search/query?ppds=des&v1=DNA+%28DEOXYRIBONUCLEIC+ACID%29&fdq=19960101&td=sysdate&sort=newest&ac=DNA+%28DEOXYRIBONUCLEIC+ACID%29&rt=1%2Cdes%2Corg%2Cper%2Cgeo
   38. http://query.nytimes.com/search/query?ppds=des&v1=GENETIC+ENGINEERING&fdq=19960101&td=sysdate&sort=newest&ac=GENETIC+ENGINEERING&rt=1%2Cdes%2Corg%2Cper%2Cgeo

More information about the paleopsych mailing list