Crick, Who Discovered DNA Structure With Watson, Dies
July 29, 2004
By NICHOLAS WADE
Francis H. C. Crick, co-discoverer of the structure of DNA,
the genetic blueprint for life, and the leading molecular
biologist of his age, died Wednesday night in a hospital in
San Diego. He was 88.
He died after a long battle with colon cancer, said Andrew
Porterfield, a spokesman for the Salk Institute for
Biological Studies, where he worked.
Dr. Crick laid the foundations of molecular biology in a
sustained burst of creativity that began in 1953 with the
discovery of the structure of DNA, the hereditary material,
in Cambridge, England, and ended, about 13 years later,
with the subject's primary problems solved, most of them
either by Dr. Crick himself or by scientists in his circle.
The discovery of the structure of DNA resolved longstanding
questions about the nature of the hereditary material and
the manner in which it is copied as one generation succeeds
another. Their proposal for the structure, almost
immediately accepted, was electrifying to scientists not
only because of its inherent elegance but also because it
showed how biology, evolution and the nature of life itself
could fundamentally be explained in terms of physics and
chemistry. Indeed, the desire to replace religious with
rational explanations of life was a principal motivation of
Dr. Crick's career.
So central is DNA to biology that the names of Francis H.
C. Crick and James D. Watson, his American colleague in the
discovery, may be remembered as long as those of Darwin and
Mendel, the architects of the two pillars of modern
biology: the theory of evolution and the laws of genetics.
Dr. Crick was a scientist with a thirst to understand and
a talent for productive friendships. It was his two-year
collaboration with Dr. Watson that made possible the
discovery of the structure of DNA, a feat that neither
would have accomplished without the other. After Dr. Watson
returned to the United States, Dr. Crick's close
collaborator for many years was Sydney Brenner, with whom
he solved the nature of the genetic code.
Dr. Crick occupied a rarely paralleled position of
intellectual leadership in the early years of molecular
biology. In intense efforts to explore beyond the door
opened by the discovery of DNA, biologists from Paris to
Pasadena, Calif., were drawn into a pursuit that at every
stage was shaped by Francis Crick.
"By brain, wit, vigor of personality, strength of voice,
intellectual charm and scorn, a lot of travel and ceaseless
letter-writing, Crick coordinated the research of many
other biologists, disciplined their thinking, arbitrated
their conflicts, communicated and explained their results,"
wrote the historian Horace Freeland Judson in "The Eighth
Day of Creation."
The French biologist Jacques Monod told Mr. Judson, "No one
man discovered or created molecular biology. But one man
dominates intellectually the whole field, because he knows
the most and understands the most. Francis Crick."
An unforgettable portrait of Francis Crick was drawn by Dr.
Watson in "The Double Helix," his best-selling account of
their discovery. Mr. Crick was unknown at the time,
pursuing his Ph.D. at the advanced age of 35. But the lack
of this credential did not diminish his confidence in his
own abilities. "I have never seen Francis Crick in a modest
mood," Dr. Watson wrote in the striking opening sentence of
He described Mr. Crick's animated conversation, his manic
laughter, his habit - infuriating to colleagues - of
pumping them for their data and showing them what it meant.
"Conversation with Crick," Dr. Watson wrote, "frequently
upset Sir Lawrence Bragg," the director of the Cavendish
Laboratory in Cambridge where Mr. Crick then worked, "and
the sound of his voice was often sufficient to make Bragg
move to a safer room."
Yet Dr. Watson's vivid portrait held elements of
caricature. Mr. Crick's immodesty did not extend beyond the
realm of intellectual argument.
"Rather than believe that Watson and Crick made the DNA
structure, I would rather stress that the structure made
Watson and Crick," Dr. Crick wrote diffidently in a memoir
titled `'What Mad Pursuit."
On the day of the discovery, Dr. Watson asserted, "Francis
winged into the Eagle," the dingy Cambridge pub where they
lunched every day, "to tell everyone within hearing
distance that we had found the secret of life."
Dr. Crick said he did not remember that incident, "but I do
recall going home and telling Odile [his wife] that we
seemed to have made a big discovery."
"Years later she told me that she hadn't believed a word of
it," he continued. " `You were always coming home and
saying things like that,' she said, `so naturally I thought
nothing of it.' "
Francis Harry Compton Crick was born on June 8, 1916, in
Northampton, England, where his father and uncle ran a boot
and shoe factory founded by their father. He studied
physics at University College, London, and after a short
period researching the viscosity of water under high
pressure (in his view "the dullest problem imaginable"), he
was drawn by World War II into military research, working
on the design of magnetic and acoustic mines. He did so
well at this job that after the war, Dr. R. V. Jones, the
head of Britain's wartime scientific intelligence, wanted
Mr. Crick to succeed him. But Mr. Crick chose research.
"Looking back, it was absurd because I had a tenured job,"
he said in a recent interview.
Finding himself at loose ends after the war, he decided the
most interesting research problem lay in trying to
understand the physical basis of life, the division between
the living and the non-living. The choice eventually drew
him to the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge, one of the
world's leading centers for studying the structure of
proteins by X-ray analysis. At 35, he started working for
his Ph.D. on the structure of proteins.
Proteins were already understood to be the cell's working
parts and Mr. Crick began a Ph.D. thesis on the structure
of hemoglobin. He worked in a branch of the Cavendish, the
Medical Research Council unit headed by Dr. Max F. Perutz.
Well before his thesis was finished, however, he realized
that a far more interesting problem was the structure of
deoxyribonucleic acid, or DNA. A classic experiment of 1944
had pointed to DNA as the genetic material but biologists
had made almost no progress since then in understanding how
the hereditary information might be stored and few were
actively working on the problem.
Mr. Crick's life was changed one day in October 1951 when a
23-year-old American biologist walked into his life. James
Watson also understood that the structure of DNA was the
key to everything. Neither was supposed to be working on
DNA, but they at once fell into discussing how the problem
might be approached, in conversations so sustained that the
pair were given their own small office at the Cavendish
laboratory so their voices would not disturb everyone else.
"Jim and I hit it off immediately," Dr. Crick later wrote,
"partly because our interests were astonishingly similar
and partly, I suspect, because a certain youthful
arrogance, a ruthlessness and an impatience with sloppy
thinking came naturally to both of us."
Their approach, copied from the great chemist Linus
Pauling, then at the California Institute of Technology,
was to build exact scale models that would be compatible
with the limited information available from X-ray
crystallography. One difficulty was that the problem of
DNA's structure had been assigned to another scientist,
Maurice H. F. Wilkins of King's College, London, and under
the etiquette of British science, to Dr. Watson's
amazement, no one else was supposed to muscle in on it.
But Dr. Wilkins, a wartime friend of Mr. Crick's, said he
did not object to his attempting a model. Dr. Watson and
Mr. Crick soon had one ready. It was based, in part, on
X-ray data about DNA obtained by Dr. Wilkins's colleague,
Dr. Rosaland Franklin. Dr. Watson had heard Dr. Franklin
describe these data in a public lecture but had
For their model, Mr. Crick and Dr. Watson constructed the
backbone of the DNA molecule in the form of a double
spiral, or helix, with the two helices held together in the
middle by metal ions. The bases, the four chemical subunits
that spell out the genetic information, pointed outward
because Dr. Watson and Mr. Crick could see no way that the
necessarily irregular sequence of bases would match
together neatly if they pointed inward.
With the model completed, Mr. Crick invited Dr. Wilkins and
Dr. Wilkins's colleague Rosalind Franklin up to Cambridge
to inspect their progress. Dr. Franklin instantly
recognized a glaring error and a few days later Bragg,
embarrassed by the debacle, ordered Mr. Crick to do no more
work on DNA.
Mr. Crick and Dr. Watson nonetheless kept thinking about
the problem and a few months later were able to reverse
Bragg's prohibition. The precipitating event was the
announcement by Linus Pauling, who was Bragg's peer and
rival, that Pauling had found the solution to the structure
of DNA. Mr. Crick and Dr. Watson knew that Pauling's
solution was wrong, but believed it might be only days
before Pauling realized his error and seized on the correct
In their second attempt, Mr. Crick and Dr. Watson picked up
several important clues. As part of a reporting system
designed to share information among laboratories supported
by the British Medical Research Council, Mr. Crick came to
see new X-ray data generated by Franklin. Although Franklin
insisted in public lectures that these data proved DNA
could not be a helix, Mr. Crick understood that they proved
the opposite and that the two chains were anti-parallel, in
other words that the head of one was always laid against
the tail of the other.
The two biologists had also belatedly learned of Chargaff's
rules, named for Erwin Chargaff, a longtime student of DNA
at Columbia University. The four kinds of bases that occur
in DNA are known as adenine, guanine, thymine and cytosine,
or A, G, T and C for short. Chargaff had discovered that
from whatever organism DNA was isolated, A and T were found
in roughly equal quantities, as were G and C.
From Jerry Donohue, an experienced American chemist who
happened then to be sharing their office, Mr. Crick and Dr.
Watson also learned the true chemical structures of the DNA
bases and the fact that the chemical structures shown in
current textbooks were incorrect.
The ingredients for the discovery were now all in place.
With the right structures in hand, Dr. Watson was playing
one day with cardboard cutouts of the four bases when he
noticed that an A-T pair on his small desk was identical in
shape with a G-C pair. He immediately perceived how the
bases could point inward, holding the spiral staircase
together with steps of always equal width, provided that
adenine always paired with thymine, guanine with cytosine.
The pairing rule at once explained the equivalences of
Chargaff's rules and, more critically, how one DNA chain
could serve as the template for building another, the
essential requirement for any molecule that embodied
"That morning," Mr. Judson wrote in `The Eighth Day of
Creation,' "Watson and Crick knew, although still in mind
only, the entire structure: it had emerged from the shadow
of billions of years, absolute and simple, and was seen and
understood for the first time."
In his memoir Dr. Crick said: "It's true that by blundering
about we stumbled on gold, but the fact remains that we
were looking for gold. Both of us had decided, quite
independently of each other, that the central problem in
molecular biology was the chemical structure of the gene."
No other scientists were pursuing the structure with such
It took only a few days to build the model dictated by
their new concepts. This time it convinced everyone because
it explained everything.
`'It has not escaped our notice," Mr. Crick wrote in a
lapidary conclusion to their report of April 25, 1953, in
the scientific journal Nature, `'that the specific pairing
we have postulated immediately suggests a possible copying
mechanism for the genetic material."
After making the discovery and completing the requirements
for his Ph.D., Dr. Crick plunged into the problems now made
accessible by the new structure. How does the sequence of
bases in DNA determine the sequence of amino acids in the
ribbon-like structure of each protein molecule? How is the
information copied from DNA and transferred to the cell's
Though many scientists played important roles in solving
this array of problems, the guiding intelligence at almost
all points was Dr. Crick's. It was he, for example, who
first realized there could be only a specific number of
amino acids, the building blocks of proteins. Scanning the
confused biochemical literature, he drew up the canonical
list of the 20 acids.
With his colleague Sydney Brenner, Dr. Crick eventually
proved, in an experiment of remarkable elegance, that the
genetic code was a comma-less, triplet code in which sets
of three bases in the DNA sequence determine a
corresponding sequence of amino acids in proteins. The
Crick-Brenner experiment essentially consisted of deleting
bases, one by one, in the DNA of bacteria, and showing that
only after three bases had been eliminated in close
proximity did the DNA-transcribing system come back into
In a conversation in 1960 with the French biologist
Francois Jacob, Dr. Crick and Dr. Brenner recognized the
long-puzzling identity of the messenger chemical, now known
as messenger RNA, that distributes copies of the genetic
information in the cell's nucleus to the protein-making
apparatus in the cell's periphery.
In another insight of remarkable power, Dr. Crick in his
"adaptor hypothesis" divined that there must exist both a
class of carrier molecules that recognize triplets on the
messenger and adaptor enzymes that link each kind of amino
acid to its appropriate carrier. Biochemists ridiculed the
idea, saying that if the adaptor enzymes existed, they
would already have found them. But both the transfer RNA's
and the adaptor enzymes proved to exist, as Dr. Crick had
Dr. Crick derived several sweeping theories that have stood
the test of time. He assumed from the start that the
genetic code was universal to all forms of life, as indeed
with trivial exceptions it has proved to be. His "central
dogma" formulated the view that once genetic information
has passed into protein, it cannot get out again. The dogma
meant that the genetic message is impenetrable by
information from outside the cell, thus excluding the
Lamarckian thesis that acquired characteristics can be
In 1962 Dr. Crick and Dr. Watson and Maurice Wilkins
received the Nobel Prize in medicine. Dr. Wilkins and
Rosalind Franklin had contributed the X-ray data that
suggested and confirmed the structure of DNA but Dr.
Franklin had died of leukemia in 1958.
The discovery of DNA brought unwelcome attention, too. In
1967 Dr. Crick read a draft of Dr. Watson's account of
their discovery, "The Double Helix." The memoir, which then
bore the working title "Honest Jim," was a startling
departure from the usual staid accounts of laboratory life.
After its opening declaration about Dr. Crick's lack of
modesty, it adroitly portrayed the participants' feelings
as the helter-skelter pursuit of DNA wound to its
resolution. Dr. Crick viewed the gossipy narrative as a
betrayal of their friendship, a violation of his privacy
and a distortion of their methods and motives. He was
unsuccessful in efforts to prevent the book's publication.
Dr. Crick later came to terms with his colleague's
"In those days there was a different convention, at least
in Britain, about writing about your friends," he said in
an interview in 2003. "But I came out of the book quite
well, apart from the first sentence. As Peter Medawar said,
the person who comes out worst is Jim."
One of the problems caused by the book was Dr. Watson's
implication that the pair of them had obtained Dr.
Franklin's data on DNA surreptitiously and hence had
deprived her of due credit for the DNA discovery. Dr. Crick
believed he obtained the data fairly since she had
presented it at a public lecture, to which he had been
invited. Though Dr. Watson had misreported a vital figure
from the lecture, a correct version reached Dr. Crick
through the Medical Research Council report. If Dr.
Franklin felt Dr. Crick had treated her unfairly, she never
gave any sign of it. She became friends with both Dr. Crick
and Dr. Watson, and spent her last remission from cancer in
Dr. Crick's house.
Dr. Crick gave his younger colleague no equivalent cause
for complaint. Dr. Watson acknowledged the selflessness of
Dr. Crick's motives.
"Francis was always so kind to me," he said in an interview
in 1998. "He never tried to promote himself. He was just
interested in solving problems."
By 1966 the first era of biology at the molecular level was
complete. Though many details of enormous interest remained
to be discovered, the foundations had been well and truly
laid. Dr. Crick and Dr. Brenner decided to move on to
another vast field of biology, the manner in which a whole
organism develops from the embryo.
In 1977 Dr. Crick left Cambridge, and his well-known house
on Portugal Place, with its golden helix above the front
door, where he and his wife, Odile, had held many
high-spirited parties. The Cricks moved to the Salk
Institute in La Jolla, Calif. There he took on another
challenging unsolved problem of biology - the nature of
He had little expectation of producing any radically new
ideas at his advanced age of 72, he wrote in 1988, "but at
my time of life I had a right to do things for my own
amusement." Never one to let his mind lie fallow, Dr. Crick
produced a stream of papers about aspects of the brain and
a well-regarded popular book, "The Astonishing Hypothesis"
(1994), which summarized his ideas.
Another diversion that Dr. Crick allowed himself was a bold
speculation about the origin of life. Only the most eminent
and secure of scientists would dare flirt with the idea
that Earth may have been seeded with life by a rocketship
from another planet. But that possibility, a thesis Dr.
Crick termed "Directed Panspermia," was aired in an article
he published in Icarus (1973) with his Salk Institute
colleague Leslie E. Orgel and in a popular book by Dr.
Crick alone, "Life Itself" (1981).
Dr. Crick in no way rejected the orthodox scientific thesis
that life evolved in some way, yet to be specified, from
the chemicals present on the early Earth. But he was
impressed by the unexplained universality of the genetic
code, and uncomfortable with the narrow window of time
between the date the Earth cooled enough to be habitable
and the first appearance of life in the fossil record.
With "Directed Panspermia," he prepared, in effect, an
intellectual escape hatch, an alternative explanation for
life should scientists in fact find it too hard to account
plausibly for the remarkably rapid emergence of Earth's
first life forms.
Dr. Crick's style of practicing science was unusual. Most
biologists do experiments; he did so very rarely, being one
of biology's few theoreticians. He did not take graduate
students, preferring instead to work with a single
colleague. His scientific interlocutors were first Dr.
Watson, then Dr. Sydney Brenner during the Golden Age of
molecular biology, and for his work on the brain Dr.
"Francis essentially works alone but likes to have a
colleague to play against, so to speak," Dr. Brenner said
He wrote little about his own life and, despite his fame,
remained a surprisingly private person.
Dr. Crick's first marriage, to Ruth Doreen Dodd, ended in
divorce in 1947. He is survived by his wife, Odile Speed; a
son from his first marriage, Michael F. C. Crick of
Seattle; and by two daughters from his second marriage,
Gabrielle A. Crick and Jacqueline M. T. Nichols, both of
England; and six grandchildren.
What is the nature of scientific genius? Dr. Crick was
perhaps offering an answer in his response to a different
question, that of whether he enjoyed his life.
"I cannot do better," he said, than to quote from a lecture
by the painter John Minton "in which he said of his own
artistic creations, `The important thing is to be there
when the picture is painted.' And this, it seems to me, is
partly a matter of luck and partly good judgment,
inspiration and persistent application."