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What they said about Francis Crick

2 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.

20 July 2015 - by Paul Waldron 
'Do you know who Maurice Wilkins is?' I put this question to a number of my friends, most of them scientists, and got a series of blank looks. Only one knew who he was, and she had a degree in the history and philosophy of science...
29 April 2013 - by Purvi Shah 
A memorial to Francis Crick has been unveiled at his former college at the University of Cambridge to mark the 60th anniversary of the publication of the structure of DNA...
17 September 2012 - by Dr Linda Wijlaars 
It is not often that you get the chance attend a seminar organised by an institution that is still under construction. Due to open in 2015, the building that will house the Francis Crick Institute currently comprises a rudimentary basement and ground floor, a handful of towering cranes and a swanky visitor centre...
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