News your connection to The Boston Globe

Francis Crick, DNA pioneer, dies

Codiscovered the double helix

Francis Crick, who with James D. Watson discovered the double helix structure of the DNA molecule in 1953 -- one of the 20th century's most celebrated scientific breakthroughs -- died Wednesday in a San Diego hospital. He was 88 and had colon cancer.

The importance of their discovery can hardly be overstated. It all but created the field now known as molecular biology, and led to an understanding of the genetic basis of diseases, which has revolutionized the search for drugs and other treatments.

It also was the making of Dr. Crick, who at the time was still pursuing his doctorate at Cambridge University. He acknowledged that personal importance by later naming his house in England The Golden Helix.

''I will always remember Francis for his extraordinarily focused intelligence and for the many ways he showed me kindness and developed my self-confidence," Watson said yesterday in a statement from his office in Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York. ''For two years I was almost a family member, the much-younger brother prone to intellectually stray. . . . I always looked forward to being with him and speaking to him, up until the moment of his death."

Watson and Dr. Crick received the 1962 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for discovering that the structure of DNA was a double helix. In making their discovery, Dr. Crick and Watson drew upon the research of Maurice Wilkins, who shared the Nobel, and his colleague, Rosalind Franklin, who died in 1958.

Dr. Crick always downplayed the significance of his achievement, saying in his 1988 memoir that ''it is the molecule that has the glamour, not the scientists."

But the scientists who followed him never believed that.

''Francis Crick was a connection to that founding generation of molecular biologists who changed the world, and in terms of pure intellect he was the most extraordinary of them," said Eric S. Lander, director of the Cambridge-based Broad Institute, who was instrumental in mapping the human genome.

Publicly, Dr. Crick was less well known than Watson, who had a gaudier personality. Not that Dr. Crick was a wallflower.

When at Cambridge, he and his wife, Odile (Speed) Crick, were famous for the liveliness of their parties. He was also renowned in scientific circles for his blunt honesty, puckish wit, and considerable self-assurance. As Watson wrote in the famous first sentence of his memoir, ''The Double Helix" (1968): ''I have never seen Francis Crick in a modest mood."

Watson's greater fame was even more attributable to ''The Double Helix," which was an immediate best seller and soon attained classic status. Dr. Crick liked to joke how often he was complimented on his authorship of the book. Indeed, his and Watson's names were joined in the public mind. Even some colleagues lumped them together. In 1955, Watson was visiting his old haunts at Cambridge. Dr. Crick introduced him to the new head of the university's Cavendish Laboratory. ''Watson?" he said to Dr. Crick. ''I thought your name was Watson-Crick."

Francis Harry Compton Crick was born on June 8, 1916, in Northampton, England, the son of Harry Crick, a footwear manufacturer, and Anne Elizabeth (Wilkins) Crick. The family moved to London when Dr. Crick was a boy.

Having demonstrated an early interest in science, Dr. Crick studied physics at University College London. He earned his bachelor's degree in 1937 and began doing graduate work on the viscosity of water. He later described this as ''the dullest problem imaginable," but it led to his working for the British Admiralty during World War II, developing naval mines.

With the war over, Dr. Crick found himself at a crossroads, bored with physics and intrigued by what he called ''the chemical physics of biology." Pondering the advisability of switching to biological research, he consulted various friends. ''I've known a lot of people more stupid than you who've made a success of it," one told him.

Thus encouraged, Dr. Crick went to Cambridge to work on his doctorate. He met Watson there in 1951. ''A certain youthful arrogance, a ruthlessness, and an impatience with sloppy thinking came naturally to both of us," Dr. Crick later wrote. They almost immediately began their pursuit of what Watson once called ''the most golden of molecules."

Drawing on X-ray diffraction studies by Wilkins and Franklin, as well as work by the US chemist Linus Pauling, Dr. Crick and Watson spent the better part of two years working on models of the DNA molecule. At one point, Dr. Crick was forbidden to continue work on DNA (he was supposed to be researching proteins). When they finally hit upon the double helix as DNA's structure, Odile Crick was initially unimpressed.

''You were always coming home and saying things like that," she later explained, ''so naturally I thought nothing of it."

Dr. Crick, who received his doctorate in 1954, later became a central figure in the study of protein synthesis and genetic coding. Along with Sydney Brenner, he showed how DNA provides instructions to make amino acids and then proteins, the basic building blocks of life.

This itself was a profound insight, but he also showed the essence of how these instructions work: DNA can be thought of as a long string of letters, and every three letters is like a word that specifies a particular amino acid, he and Brenner showed.

Dr. Crick also theorized that molecules called ''transfer" RNA play a crucial role in this process -- a theory that was later proven correct.

''Not only did he discover with Jim Watson the double-helical structure of DNA, but Francis Crick intuited the mechanism by which the genetic code is written and read out," Lander said. ''Those three things -- the double helix, [RNA] molecules, and the triplet nature of the genetic code -- I think of as the greatest intellectual hat trick in the history of biology, and they emerged from pure insight with very little data for guidance."

Dr. Crick held several visiting professorships at universities in the United States, including Harvard and the Rockefeller Institute, while maintaining his affiliation with Cambridge. In 1976, he moved to the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, Calif., where the focus of his work became brain research. He continued doing theoretical work until shortly before his death.

Lander recalled the experience of working with Dr. Crick at Salk in the early 1980s.

''What I most remember was his pure joy in ideas. He just took such pleasure in thinking about hard problems," Lander said. ''He was the most playful 70-year-old you might imagine, and there was the sense he was like that at every age."

Dr. Crick also made headlines in 1981 with his ''panspermia" hypothesis, which he propounded in his book (with Leslie Orgel) ''Life Itself: Its Origin and Nature." Dr. Crick suggested that life on Earth began when an unmanned spacecraft from another world crashed here billions of years ago, depositing microorganisms.

Dr. Crick was also author of ''Of Molecules and Men" (1966) and ''The Astonishing Hypothesis: Scientific Search for the Soul" (1994). The latter book offers Dr. Crick's thoughts on the brain and the nature of consciousness.

In it, he announces, '' 'You,' your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules."

In addition to his wife, Dr. Crick leaves a son, Michael, of Seattle, from his first marriage, to Ruth (Dodd) Crick, which ended in divorce; two daughters, Gabrielle and Jacqueline M.T. Nichols, , both of England; and four grandchildren.

The funeral will be private.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this obituary. 

Today (free)
Yesterday (free)
Past 30 days
Last 12 months