Biography of Francis Crick

Francis Crick and James Watson identified the structure of DNA in 1953. This was the highlight of years of research done by Crick and Watson, fellow scientists Rosalind Franklin and Maurice Wilkins, and others.

This breakthrough discovery was the start of modern molecular biology. It laid the foundation for understanding the important role genes play in controlling chemical processes in cells.

Crick, Watson and Wilkins were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1962. Franklin was not considered to share the award. She died in 1958, and it is extremely unusual for a Nobel Prize to be awarded posthumously—this has been done only on three occasions in all categories since the prize was first awarded in 1901.

1. Crick’s Early Years and Education

Francis Crick was born in Weston Favell, Northampton, on 8 June 1916.

Early life

Crick was the older of Harry Crick and Annie Elizabeth Wilkins’s two children, both sons. Crick’s father co-managed the family’s shoe factory, and his mother was a former nurse. He spent his early childhood in Weston Favell, which was a small town at the time.

His grandfather, Walter Drawbridge Crick, was an amateur geologist and biologist who had two gastropods—snails and slugs—named after him. The young Crick was fascinated by the world around him, and he loved studying Arthur Mee's Children's Encyclopedia.

His uncle, Walter Crick, was a formative influence in his life. Walter Crick had a shed in his garden, where he taught the young Crick to blow glass, do photographic printing and do chemical experiments.

Education

Crick started his schooling at Northampton Grammar School, which became Northampton School for Boys in later years.

He was awarded a scholarship and started attending Mill Hill School in London in 1925 as a boarder. He specialized in physics, chemistry and mathematics. At the time, Crick was known as an entertaining prankster by his peers.

He applied to study at both Cambridge and Oxford Universities, but he wasn’t accepted. A possible reason is that he wasn’t interested in learning Latin at the time, which he needed to learn to be accepted.

Crick consequently enrolled for a physics degree at University College London (UCL) in 1934, where he obtained a Bachelor of Science (BSc) degree in 1937. At UCL he took up horse riding as a sport, and he enjoyed socialising.

Following this, Crick started doing research for a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) degree under Professor Edward Andrade. The PhD research project assigned to Crick was on how the viscosity of water changes at temperatures above 100°C. He later described this project as ‘the dullest problem imaginable’.

Crick had to abandon his studies when the Second World War broke out, especially after a bomb fell through the roof of the laboratory at UCL and destroyed his equipment.

In 1954 he obtained his PhD from Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge, with his thesis ‘X-Ray Diffraction: Polypeptides and Proteins’.

2. Crick’s Early Work

During the Second World War, Crick worked for the Admiralty Research Laboratory, a research laboratory in Teddington, London, that supported the work of the UK Admiralty between 1921 and 1977.

Admiralty Research Laboratory

At the Admiralty, Crick started working under Harrie Massie to counteract German magnetic mines and mine sweepers.

Crick’s resourcefulness, coupled with his knowledge of electric circuitry and hydrodynamics, stood him in good stead at the Admiralty. He was assigned to design triggers for magnetic mines that could not be detected by enemy minesweepers.

When the war ended, Crick was transferred to the Admiralty’s intelligence section.

He applied for a permanent post, but he decided to leave. The main reason for this was that he wanted to do something more stimulating than designing weapons.

After the War

In 1947 Crick left the Admiralty to study biology. He got a studentship from the Medical Research Council (MRC), and with some financial help from his family, he went to Cambridge.

At the Strangeways Research Laboratory, headed by Dame Bridget Fell, Crick’s initial research focused on the physical properties of cytoplasm; which is all material within living cells, excluding nuclei.

In 1949 he started working at the Cavendish Laboratory, Cambridge, under Max Perutz and Sir John Kendrew.

At the time the director of the laboratory, Sir Lawrence Bragg, was strongly focussed on beating prominent American chemist Linus Pauling in the race to discover DNA’s structure.

3. Watson Joins Crick

Crick and Watson started working together at Cavendish Laboratory in 1951—a working relationship that changed the course of history.

First effort

The duo started working on creating a model of the structure of DNA. Watson convinced Crick that understanding DNA’s three-dimensional structure would demonstrate its hereditary role.

Around this time a friend of Crick’s, Maurice Wilkins, had started studying DNA at King’s College; where he was joined by Rosalind Franklin 1951.

Franklin shared her X-ray diffraction—the use of X-rays to view crystalline objects— findings during a seminar at King’s College in November 1951, which Watson attended.

Crick and Watson then used this information to build their first model of the structure of DNA, but it failed. Franklin picked up errors when she took a look at their model—especially that the water ratio was incorrect.

After this failure, Crick and Watson were no longer allowed to do DNA research at the Cavendish Laboratory.

Success

In December 1952 the MRC gave Cavendish Laboratory a report on their site visit to their King’s College laboratory, which gave Crick and Watson access to Wilson and Franklin’s work.

In January 1953 Wilkins shared Franklin’s photo 51, which was an X-ray diffraction image of crystallised DNA that was taken by her student Raymond Gosling, with Watson.

Crick and Watson then applied for permission to undertake another attempt to construct a model of the structure of DNA, and both Perutz and Bragg gave them the go-ahead.

The duo set to work, applying the known chemical properties of DNA and the X-ray diffraction studies done by Wilkins and Franklin, to construct their model.

On 28 February 1953 Crick and Watson succeeded: They constructed an accurate model of the structure of DNA—marking the start of modern molecular biology.

They published an article on their findings, ‘Molecular Structure of Nucleic Acids: A Structure for Deoxyribose Nucleic Acid’, in the scientific journal Nature on 25 April 1953. Crick’s wife, artist Odle Crick, made an illustration of the DNA model for the article.

4. Crick’s Work After the Discovery of DNA

After creating a model of the structure of DNA, Crick started exploring the biological implications of this discovery.

1950s

After obtaining his PhD in 1954, Crick started doing postdoctoral work in the laboratory of David Harker at the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn, which became the New York University Tandon School of Engineering. He worked on the analysis of X-ray-diffraction data for proteins during this time.

When Crick returned from New York to Cambridge, he started working with Alexander Rich on a proposed molecular structure for collagen. At the time Crick and Watson also did research on the structure of small viruses.

In the mid-1950s, Crick shared an unpublished paper, ‘On Degenerate Templates and the Adaptor Hypothesis’, in which he proposed that the transfer ribonucleic acid (tRNA) molecule exists.

In 1958 Crick proposed the Sequence Hypothesis and the central dogma of molecular biology, which both gave insight into how genetic information is encoded in DNA and how it controls protein synthesis.

In 1959 Crick was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society.

1960s: searching for the origin of the genetic code

In the 1960s, Crick started exploring the origins of the genetic code.

In 1961 Crick and Sydney Brenner wrote in Nature journal how they had found evidence that the genetic code had to be read three bases at a time. This had to be done in one direction, starting from a fixed point on the DNA strand.

At the time, Brenner and Crick became joint heads of the Laboratory of Molecular Biology’s Cell Biology Division.

In 1966 Crick published his first book, Of Molecules and Men, which was a collection of popular lectures in which he explained the importance of the discovery of the structure of DNA in layperson's terms.

1970s

Crick found it hard to believe that DNA could have evolved naturally, which directed the course of his research.

In the early 1970s, Crick and Leslie Orgel further explored a process that they called ‘directed panspermia’ Directed panspermia suggested the possibility that the creation of living systems from molecules may have been a very rare event, but from there it could be spread by intelligent life forms via space travel technology.

In 1976 Crick co-authored a paper in which he addressed the origin of protein synthesis. The authors suggested that protein synthesis is possible without the need for a ribosome, a cell component that was understood to be vital for protein synthesis up to this point.

Crick took a sabbatical year in 1976, and went to go work at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies—where he had been a non-resident fellow since the early 1960s— in La Jolia, California.

At the end of the year Crick decided to stay on at the Salk Institute, and he left Cambridge in 1977 after 30 years.

1980s: from molecular science to neurology

In the 1980s Crick devoted his full attention to exploring the concept of consciousness, which includes a sense of selfhood and the state of being aware of your existence.

In 1981 he released his second book, Life Itself: Its Origin and Nature, which questions the nature of life from the hypothetical scenario that a higher civilisation sent spores to earth via a rocket.

In his following book, What Mad Pursuit: A Personal View of Scientific Discovery that was released in 1988, he explained why he switched from molecular biology to neuroscience.

He wrote that he had noticed three things that made an impression on him. The first was that there were so many subdisciplines within neuroscience, yet they weren’t connected. The second was that not much was understood of the internal workings of the brain. He also observed that numerous neurobiologists saw consciousness as a taboo subject.

Crick hoped to progress the field of neuroscience by encouraging positive collaboration between specialists in the field of consciousness. For this reason he started working with others in the field, for instance analytical philosopher Patricia Churchland.

In 1983, as a result of their studies of computer models of neural networks, Crick and Graeme Mitchinson suggested that the function of the rapid eye movement (REM) sleep phase is to remove certain modes of interactions in the cerebral cortex; which they called ‘reverse learning’ or 'unlearning'.

Crick and Koch: 1990 to 2004

From 1990 to 2004 Crick teamed up with neuroscientist Christof Koch, resulting in a number of articles on consciousness. The focal point of his research during this stage was to understand how the brain interprets visual material within milliseconds.

In his 1994 book, The Astonishing Hypothesis: The Scientific Search For The Soul, he made and attempt to approach the concept of consciousness from a scientific perspective.

5. Crick’s Opposition to Religion & his Personal Life

Crick actively expressed opposition to religion throughout his life.

As he started finding scientific answers to his questions as a child, he moved away from religion. When he was 12 years old, started refusing to go to church.

Crick accepted an honorary fellowship at Churchill College in 1960. But when the College Council decided to establish a chapel at the college, Crick resigned as a result of this decision.

In an article for 100th year birthday of Nature journal, he briefly touched on the possibility for research on what he termed as "biochemical theology". In this article he speculated about doing research on chemical changes in the brain during prayer.

His outlook on the relationship between science and religion continued to influence his work after he moved away from molecular biology to neuroscience.

Personal Life

Crick met his first wife, Ruth Doreen Dodd, at UCL after he enrolled for his BSc degree in 1934. He married the young literature student in 1940, and they had one son, Michael. The couple divorced in 1947.

He met his second wife, Odile Speed, while he was working for the Admiralty during the Second World War. Speed was a member of the Women’s Royal Navy at the time. The couple got married in 1949. They had two daughters, Gabrielle and Jacqueline.

Crick was diagnosed with advanced colon cancer in 2001. He died at the University of San Diego, California (UCSD) Thornton Hospital in La Jolla on 28 July 2004.

His ashes were scattered over the Pacific Ocean. Many prominent figures and friends in the scientific community attended the public memorial that was held for him on 27 September 2004 at the Salk Institute.

6. His Legacy

Besides being co-awarded the Nobel Prize in 1962, Crick was honored with numerous awards during his lifetime for his contribution to the field of molecular biology. After his death in 2004, he was immortalized in many ways.

In 2001 Crick and Watson were jointly awarded the Benjamin Franklin Medal for distinguished achievement in the sciences by the American Philosophical Society.

A sculpture called Discovery was erected in Crick’s honor in Northampton in 2005. In the same year, he was honored through the inscription on a sculpture of the double helix structure of DNA outside Clare College at Cambridge University.

Crick’s alma mater Mill Hill School bought a bronze bust of him in 2013, which they display on occasions.

The Westminster City Council unveiled a plaque in front of a flat in London where Crick lived from 1945 to 1947.

Disputed claims

Anne Sayre, a friend of Franklin who wrote a biography on her called 'Rosalind Franklin and DNA', wrote that Wilkins showed Watson photograph 51 without Franklin’s permission, and that this was unethical.

This was one of quite a few similar claims that surfaced over the years.

These claims are disputed in a biography written by Brenda Maddox, called 'Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA'. Maddox’s book explains that Franklin transferred her data to Wilkin because she was leaving King’s to go work at Birkbeck, and that this was not a strange thing to do.

Besides this, both the Biophysics Research Unit at King’s College where Franklin worked, and the Medical Research Council Unit in the Cavendish Laboratory where Crick and Watson did their research, were funded by the MRC.

Most importantly,, the MRC gave the Cambridge unit—where Crick and Watson worked—their report on their site visit to their King’s College laboratory in December 1952. In this manner, the MRC gave Crick and Watson access to Franklin and Wilkins’s work. This took place before Wilkins showed Watson photograph 51.

Lastly, Franklin was a close friend of Crick and his second wife, Odile. Towards the end of her life, the Cricks were of her friends that she spent the most time with.

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