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What they said about Francis Crick

02 August 2004

By Juliet Tizzard

Director, Progress Educational Trust

Appeared in BioNews 269
The recent death of Francis Crick, who, with James Watson, discovered the structure of DNA, has prompted a wave of adoring comment from obituary writers, news journalists and fellow scientists alike. And rightly so. As our news story on his death describes, Crick contributed not just to the discovery of the double helix, but also to our understanding of the production of proteins in the body and the finding that the genetic code is written in three-letter words.

Francis Crick does not, however, fulfil the image of the scientist doggedly working away in the laboratory. He did not conduct experiments (one obituary said that, in the lab, he was 'as clumsy as an albatross on land'), preferring instead to solve problems intellectually. The Washington Post described his and Watson's technique as 'thinking, arguing and thinking some more'. But it was a technique which bore fruit, leading to what many have described as the most significant scientific discovery of the twentieth century. A comment in the Guardian suggested that because 'the double helix and DNA itself have ascended into everyday mythology', Crick 'changed the way that ordinary people understand the world.'

Famed for bursting into the Eagle pub in Cambridge to tell James Watson that they had discovered the 'secret of life', Crick was, according to his wife, prone to coming home and making grand statements. And yet, in the pair's science paper in Nature describing their findings, the big event in biology was hardly shouted from the rooftops. 'We wish to suggest a structure for the salt of deoxyribose nucleic acid (DNA)' they opened. 'This structure has novel features which are of considerable biological interest.'

One newspaper columnist, the only one negative about Crick and his work, suggested that, rather than discovering the secret of life, Crick (and Watson) merely started 'the fetishisation of the gene', carried into the 21st century by the likes of Richard Dawkins. The columnist rightly points out that it will take more than DNA to discover the secret of life. But we could, at least, grant Crick and Watson the accolade of discovering the secret of biological life. But I suspect that, announced to a lunchtime pub crowd, that statement wouldn't have sounded quite so amazing.


Juliet Tizzard is the Founder of BioNews and was formerly Director of the charity that publishes it, the Progress Educational Trust (PET). She is coauthor of Key Issues in Bioethics (buy this book from Amazon UK) and Designer Babies: Where Should We Draw the Line? (buy this book from Amazon UK).

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