Francis Crick, OM
Daily Telegraph (Filed: 30/07/2004)Francis Crick, who died on Wednesday aged 88, was the most important biologist of the 20th century; with his younger colleague Jim Watson, he revealed the double helix structure of DNA, the chemical of which genes are made; the achievement won both men the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1962.
Later, with Sydney Brenner, Crick unravelled the genetic code, the biological rule-book used by all living cells to translate the information contained in the double helix into specific proteins. Among other things, this paved the way for the modern industries of biotechnology, genetic fingerprinting and screening for inherited diseases.
Crick was unusual in being actually recognised by the public as a scientist. A brash, temperamental man with a bomb-like laugh and forthright manners, he was given, according to his colleague Jim Watson, to "the antics of an unsuccessful genius"; he obtained even greater fame through The Double Helix, Watson's racy account of their breakthrough, published in 1968.
There had, however, been little in Crick's early life to suggest that such greatness lay ahead.
Francis Harry Compton Crick was born on June 8 1916 at Northampton, where his father and uncle ran a family firm which produced boots and shoes. Neither of his parents was scientifically inclined but Francis manifested an early interest. By the time he was 10, he was conducting chemical experiments at home, blowing up empty bottles with explosive mixtures, a practice soon banned by his parents.
From Northampton Grammar School he won a scholarship to Mill Hill, though he was not exceptionally precocious. Aged about 12, he lost his religious faith, an event which he later saw as the determining factor in his choice of fields for scientific research.
"I realised early on that it is detailed scientific knowledge which makes certain religious beliefs untenable," he said; and his scientific endeavours thereafter usually touched on problems which had seemed beyond the power of science to explain.
Crick went on to University College, London, where he took a second in Physics in 1937, then began research under Professor Edward Neville da Costa Andrade, who put him on to what Crick described as "the dullest problem imaginable" - determining the viscosity of water under pressure between 100-150C.
His research was interrupted by the outbreak of war in 1939, and he joined the Admiralty's Research Laboratory at Teddington, working on the development of magnetic and acoustic mines.
After the war, Crick decided not to go back to UCL, where his research apparatus had been blown up by a land mine. He was given a job in scientific intelligence at the Admiralty, but was soon itching to find some more interesting field of inquiry. He was encouraged by the thought that "since I essentially knew nothing, I had an almost completely free choice".
One day he was chatting to some naval officers about recent advances in antibiotics and realised he knew almost nothing about the subject. There and then he invented a "gossip test", which holds that whatever you are interested in, you gossip about. Applying the test to himself, he discovered that there were two subjects that interested him most: the border between the living and non-living and the workings of the brain - molecular and neurobiology to give them their scientific names.
Although molecular biologists were regarded at the time as little more than cranks by many in the scientific community, Crick chose molecular biology as the more promising field and began reading round the subject.
In 1947 he decided to try his luck in Cambridge and, for two years, he worked at the Strangeways Laboratory, carrying out research on the physical properties of cytoplasms inside the cell. In 1949 he went to join a team under Max Perutz at the Cavendish Laboratory, studying the structure of proteins using X-ray diffraction.
Crick's colleagues at the Cavendish found him direct, tactless, arrogant and noisy. "I have never seen Francis Crick in a modest mood," observed Jim Watson in the opening pages of The Double Helix. "He talked louder and faster than anyone else, and when he laughed, his location within the Cavendish was obvious."
Crick almost got himself expelled at one point after delivering a lecture entitled What Mad Pursuit (a quotation from Keats's Ode to a Grecian Urn), in which he suggested that X-ray diffraction was unlikely to lead to any useful findings about the detailed structure of protein. Sir Lawrence Bragg, the head of the Cavendish Laboratory who had invented the process, was furious.
In 1951, however, Crick met his match in Jim Watson, a 23-year-old American scientist who had come to Cambridge hoping to discover what genes were, and thinking that solving the structure of DNA might help. "Jim and I hit it off immediately," Crick wrote later, "because a certain youthful arrogance, a ruthlessness and an impatience with sloppy thinking came naturally to both of us."
Perutz said of the pair: "They shared the sublime arrogance of men who had never met their intellectual equals." But he noted their contrasting styles. Crick was tall, fair, dandyishly dressed and loud. Watson "went round like a tramp, making a show of never cleaning his shoes and spoke in a low nasal monotone that faded before the end of each sentence, to be followed by a snort".
To say that neither suffered fools gladly, Perutz added, "was an understatement. Crick was vicious at pouncing on non sequiturs and Watson would demonstratively unfold his newspaper at lectures which bored him."
Before Crick and Watson joined forces, it had already been established that DNA carries genetic information from one generation to the next, but the structure of DNA and the mechanism by which genetic information is passed on remained the single greatest unanswered question in biology.
Using information derived from a number of other scientists working on various aspects of the chemistry and structure of DNA (in particular, Rosalind Franklin and Maurice Wilkins of King's College, London, who had taken some suggestive X-ray diffraction photographs of DNA fibres), Crick and Watson puzzled over the problem and concluded that the way to solve the structure was not by experimentation but by building models and attempting to assemble the information like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.
At first the pair floundered, but, in 1953, they succeeded in constructing a three-dimensional model consistent with the evidence. The model consisted of two helical chains of DNA coiled around the same axis to form a right-handed double helix.
Crick put their discovery down "partly to luck and partly good judgment, inspiration and persistent application." "It's true that in blundering about, we struck gold," he said, "but the fact remains we were looking for gold - asking the right question."
That evening, according to Watson's account, Crick strode into The Eagle, a pub in the centre of the city, and announced to the assembled crowd that he had "discovered the secret of life". The barmaids may have heard such boasts before, but as soon as Sir Lawrence Bragg saw the model, he recognised its importance, forgot his past differences with Crick and became one of his strongest supporters. The discovery brought unrivalled prestige to the Cavendish laboratory.
In the surprisingly modest opening sentence of their paper published in Nature on April 25 1953, Crick and Watson announced: "We wish to suggest a structure for the salt of deoxyribose nucleic acid (DNA). This structure has novel features which are of considerable biological interest."
DNA, they revealed, consists of a double helix of sugar-phosphate molecules cross-linked by nucleic acids. If the two spirals were separated, each would serve as a template for the formation of a sister strand identical to its former partner, which provided a neat explanation for what happens in cell division. Moreover, Crick and Watson believed that the order of bases along the molecule formed a "code" that was translated by the cell into a specific protein.
By 1962, when they won the Nobel Prize with Wilkins (Rosalind Franklin had died four years earlier), Watson had left Cambridge to pursue a career in scientific administration. But Crick remained at the Cavendish and between 1953 and 1966 formed a collaboration with Sydney Brenner and went on to demonstrate how the double helix influences individual cells, a massive undertaking that kept him in close collaboration with Brenner for the next 20 years. By 1966 they had cracked the DNA code and after that they turned their attention to the study of embryos, a task that took up another decade.
Throughout the 1960s and into the 1970s, Crick remained a colourful and noisy figure on the British academic scene. At his Cambridge home, the Golden Helix, he and his wife Odile threw wild fancy-dress parties.
In 1960 Crick accepted a fellowship at Churchill College, Cambridge, on condition that no chapel was built in the college. When in 1963 a benefactor offered the money for one and the majority of college fellows voted to accept, Crick refused to be fobbed off with the argument that some members of the college would "appreciate" a place of worship; many more might "appreciate" the amenities of a harem, he countered, and offered to contribute financially. The offer was refused and he resigned his fellowship.
Later, as a member of the Cambridge Humanist Society, he suggested as the title for an essay competition "What can be done with the college chapels?" and provided £100 for the best essay. In 1965, however, he did accept an honorary fellowship at the college.
Crick had one more surprise in store. In 1977, then aged 61, he shocked the scientific establishment by announcing his decision to leave Britain for the Salk Institute in San Diego, and his intention to abandon the field of molecular biology for the dark and confusing waters of neurobiology, the study of the brain.
His work over the next decade on the mystery of consciousness culminated in the publication in 1991 of The Astonishing Hypothesis, a heroic - though ultimately inconclusive - attempt to wrest consciousness from philosophers and place it in the hands of scientists.
Crick argued that everything that goes on in our heads can be explained by the behaviour of billions of nerve cells; most controversially he deduced (from evidence of people whose brains had been damaged) that free will comprises a bundle of cells on the inside top surface at the front of the brain. This discovery, he believed, provided a scientific refutation of the Roman Catholic definition of the soul as a living being without a body, having reason and free will.
Francis Crick won numerous awards and honours in Britain and around the world. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1959 and was appointed to the Order of Merit in 1991.
Although increasingly frail, he continued to work from his home in La Jolla, California, and last year published (with Christof Koch) a paper which attempted to describe a virtual map for locating the seat of consciousness in the brain.
His autobiography, What Mad Pursuit, was published in 1989.
He married first, in 1940 (dissolved 1947), Ruth Dodd; they had a son. He married secondly, in 1949, Odile Speed; they had two daughters.