Francis Crick: discoverer of the genetic code

Francis Crick: discoverer of the genetic code 

Matt Ridley 

London, UK: Harper Collins | 2006 | 160pp | ?12.99 (HB) | ISBN 0007213301 

Reviewed by Bea Perks

It was hardly surprising to find that Francis Crick had been an interesting gentleman, but to find that the earliest written record of the structure of DNA appears to be in a letter he wrote to his 12-year-old son; that he once wrote to Winston Churchill, proposing the establishment of a brothel at Churchill College, Cambridge; that he enjoyed listening to Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells; and that he was an occasional user of LSD and had campaigned alongside Paul McCartney to legalise cannabis - well, what a succession of extraordinary surprises. 

In 1946, Crick got the idea - from an article written by one Linus Pauling in Chemical & Engineering News, the ACS equivalent of Chemistry World  - that biology would be explained not by strong intramolecular forces, but by the then newly discovered hydrogen bonds. At the time, Crick was working for the Admiralty, having helped sink a succession of German ships with his spectacularly successful acoustic mines. He might have been remembered for that, but hydrogen bonds were going to change things. The two strands of DNA that make up the famous double helix are, as we now know, held together by hydrogen bonds.  

The story of the double helix and how the structure was worked out is well known. Certainly Matt Ridley’s biography throws new light on the exciting tale: on the incredible personalities involved; how Crick and the indomitable James Watson brought out the very best in each other, and how Rosalind Franklin and Maurice Wilkins brought out the very worst in each other (but how all four were indispensable). But training the spotlight firmly on Crick has added a new dimension.  

Crick grew tired of the focus placed on him and Watson, rather than on the double helix itself. ’What I think is overlooked in arguments is the intrinsic beauty of the DNA double helix,’ Crick is quoted towards the end of Ridley’s book. ’It is the molecule which has style, quite as much as the scientists.’ That’s a pretty stylish thing to say. 

Oh, and by some premonitory coincidence, Ridley tells us that Francis Crick’s grandfather, an amateur naturalist, worked with Charles Darwin on Darwin’s last ever paper, published in 1882. Phew.