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Obituary: Francis Crick

Francis Crick
Francis Crick's DNA discovery was revolutionary

Francis Crick, who helped discover the structure of DNA, has died in San Diego, aged 88. BBC News Online looks back at his life and career.

The story goes that on 28 February 1953, Francis Crick walked into the Eagle pub in Cambridge and announced that he and his American colleague James Watson "had found the secret of life". In fact, they had.

That morning, Crick and Watson had worked out the structure of DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid). They had discovered its "double helix" form, one which could replicate itself, confirming theories that it carried life's hereditary information.

It was a revolutionary discovery, the most significant contribution to science, in the view of many, since Darwin's theory of evolution. It earned Crick and Watson a Nobel Prize.

Francis Crick was 38 and didn't even have a PhD. His studies had been interrupted by World War II during which he helped develop torpedoes for the Royal Navy.

Wide implications

As a molecular biologist, he was working at the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge with Max Perutz. When he met James Watson, some 10 years younger than him, they hit it off immediately, sharing the same passion for studying the structure of DNA.

Francis Crick
Francis Crick's DNA discovery was revolutionary
The pair got most of their information from other scientists. In particular, they were given important results from Maurice Wilkins and Rosalind Franklin of King's College London.

Their photographs of X-rays bounced off DNA crystals provided Crick and Watson with the vital evidence they needed. "We were lucky with DNA", he once said. "Like America, it was just waiting to be discovered."

The discovery spawned an entire industry (biotechnology) and hardly a day seems to go by when some aspect of genetic research, be it in medicine, agriculture, forensic science or ethical debate, is not in the news.

Like America, it was waiting to be discovered
Francis Crick on DNA
Francis Crick was born on 8 June, 1916 in Northampton, the son of a shoe factory owner.

He dabbled in science from an early age, once attempting, unsuccessfully, whilst in primary school, to make artificial silk. The process involved putting explosive material into bottles and blowing them up electrically.

A noted theoretician

After his and Watson's DNA discovery, Francis Crick stayed on at Cambridge to complete his PhD and to help crack the genetic code.

In 1977, he moved to the United States to a specially-created research post at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in San Diego, California.

Crick and James Watson with a model of the "double-helix"
Crick and James Watson with a model of the "double-helix"
In 1981, he published his version of the origin of life which proposed that it began when micro-organisms from another planet were dropped here by a spaceship sent to Earth from a higher civilisation.

Noted as a great theorist, he branched into neuroscience. In his somewhat less far-fetched 1994 book, The Astonishing Hypothesis, he maintained that what he called the human soul was entirely explicable in terms of brain activity.

In other words, he believed that brain chemistry, as opposed to something God-given, is responsible for human thought, character and free will. In so doing, he decried the work of philosophers and theologians alike.

Francis Crick eschewed the limelight, rarely giving lecture tours or accepting honorary degrees.

He continued to live in California, though he remained a British citizen. This enabled the Queen, in 1991, to bestow on him the rare and prestigious Order of Merit.

Man who helped unlock DNA dies
29 Jul 04 |  Science/Nature

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