Born June 8, 1916, in Northampton, England; died of colon cancer, July 28, 2004, in San Diego, California. Scientist. Called "one of the most brilliant and influential scientists of all time," by Richard A. Murphy, the president of Salk Institute, in Patricia Sullivan's Washington Post article, Francis Crick discovered, along with James Watson, the double-helical structure of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA). This one discovery has been called one of the most important in modern times. DNA, the blueprint of life, is the thing responsible for heredity. This discovery made it possible for the fields of genetic engineering and biotechnology and for most of the advances in medicine in the late 20th century and beyond.
Crick was born in Northampton, England, in 1916. The area was famous for its cobbling businesses, and Crick's father, Harry, ran a shoe factory. Crick was a curious boy and his parents bought him a children's encyclopedia when he was young that helped answer a lot of his questions. So many things were being discovered and so many questions answered as he grew up that Crick once admitted to his mother that he was afraid that by the time he grew up everything would have been discovered. He need not have worried. He attended Northampton Grammar School before going to a boarding school in London. After graduation Crick attended University College in London, earning a bachelor's degree in physics in 1937. He had just started work on a Ph.D. in physics at University College when World War II started. He joined the military and served as a scientist at the British Admiralty during the war, designing magnetic and acoustic underwater mines. When he returned to his studies he realized that he was more interested in molecular biology than physics, and he began his studies at the Cavendish Laboratory.
Crick went to Cambridge University in the early 1950s where he met James Watson. The two men discovered a shared interest in DNA and began researching together, with Crick often leading the quest. As a person, Crick was quite an individual. Mark S. Bretscher in the Independent said of Crick, "Francis Crick's greatest assets were his curiosity and ruthless intellect . He could be uncharacteristically mean to a pompous speaker; his presence at meetings made sure everyone was on their toes. He had a fine sense for aesthetic elegance, reflected in his scientific discoveries and writing. His wonderful humor, accompanied by a somewhat raucous laugh, was infectious. He was a great entertainer." It was often this verve and humor that helped along the strenuous research into the obscure nature of DNA.
Scientists at the time knew that cells had a nuclei that contained DNA, but no one knew what its function was. Crick and Watson were convinced that DNA contained the clue to heredity, but that no one had proved this yet. After much research, the pair discovered the spiral ladder shape of DNA and gleaned from this discovery the information about DNA that has become the prevalent and accepted belief. The spiral staircase, they discovered, is actually made up of four different chemicals that make up the "steps" of the ladder. These steps repeat and form a pattern or code. Areas of this code form genes, which carry the blueprints for proteins. Proteins do most of the work in the body and carry out most of its functions, so basically DNA controls everything that a body is and does. The report of the double-helix form of DNA was first reported in the May 23, 1953, edition of the British journal Nature. Crick's wife, Odile Speed, an artist who generally painted nudes, created the first model of the DNA double-helix for the men, and Watson's sister typed up the article.
It was an amazing, life-altering discovery that since that time has been used for just about everything medical. This one discovery gave rise to the biotechnology industry. According to Sullivan in the Washington Post, "The discovery helped scientists understand how humans inherit traits and how that system of inheritance further explains evolution." The discovery has also led to the ability to clone animals. Crick and Watson were awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1962 for their discovery.
After the DNA discovery Crick continued his research at Cambridge University's Medical Research Council into the mid-1970s, with a focus on the genetics of viruses, protein synthesis, and embryology. In 1976 he took a one-year sabbatical at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, which he liked so much that in 1977 he moved to La Jolla, California, to work full-time, even holding the position of president of the Salk Institute for a while. At the institute, Crick transferred his focus to the study of the brain and the nature of consciousness. He held the title of J.W. Kieckhefer distinguished professor at the institute until his death. He was also an adjunct professor at the University of California at San Diego.
While he was involved in his research and teaching, Crick was also actively publishing books about his research. In 1981 he published the book Life Itself, which discusses the idea that life began on Earth when microorganisms wafted in from space. It was a shocking, controversial idea and he later came to regret the book. In 1994 he published The Astonishing Hypothesis: The Scientific Search for the Soul, a treatise on consciousness.
After a long bout of illness, Crick died on July 28, 2004, of colon cancer in San Diego, California; he was 88. Watson, Crick's one-time partner, looked back at his friendship with Crick on the CNN website, "I will always remember Francis for his extraordinarily focused intelligence and for the many ways he showed me kindness and developed my self-confidence . I always looked forward to being with him and speaking to him, up until the moment of his death. He will be sorely missed." During his lifetime Crick married Ruth Doreen Dodd, but the couple divorced after seven years. They had one son, Michael F. C. Crick. He married Odile Speed, a French artist, in 1949 and had two daughters, Gabrielle and Jacqueline. He is survived by his wife, three children, and four grandchildren.
CNN.com, http://www.cnn.com/2004/TECH/science/07/29/people.crick.reut/index.html (July 30, 2004).
Independent (London), August 3, 2004, p. 34.
Los Angeles Times, July 28, 2004, p. A1, p. A26.
New York Times, July 30, 2004, p. A1, p. A13.
Washington Post, July 30, 2004, p. A1, p. A4.
—Catherine Victoria Donaldson