Francis Crick, joint winner of the 1962 Nobel prize in Physiology or Medicine for the groundbreaking discovery of the DNA double helix structure has died at the age of 88.

Francis Harry

Francis Crick, joint winner of the 1962 Nobel prize in Physiology or Medicine for the groundbreaking discovery of the DNA double helix structure has died at the age of 88 in his home town of La Jolla, California, US. 

In 1953, while at the University of Cambridge, UK, physicist Crick and genetics post-doc James D Watson proposed a structure to explain the characteristic interaction between the bases that make up the DNA molecule. The double helix structure they came up with explained not only the pairing of bases (known today as Watson-Crick pairs) but, crucially, offered an explanation for the system of storing and transferring genetic information. 

Their paper in Nature detailing these findings, held up by Lord May of Oxford, president of the Royal Society, as one of the most famous scientific papers of all time, opened with what May notes were a remarkably ’unassuming’ couple of sentences: ’We wish to suggest a structure for the salt of the deoxyribose nucleic acid (DNA). This structure has novel features which are of considerable biological interest.’

But the findings were initially presented with rather more of a flourish, according to Watson’s memoirs, published in 1968. The pair took the news of their breakthrough straight from the University’s Cavendish Laboratory to unsuspecting drinkers at the pub round the corner, The Eagle, where last year a plaque was unveiled to celebrate the 50th anniversary of this momentous event. 

Working with Crick was an ’extraordinary privilege’, said Watson, currently Chancellor of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York. ’I will always remember Francis for his extraordinarily focused intelligence and for the many ways he showed me kindness and developed my self-confidence,’ he said. For two years, Watson says he felt almost a member of Crick’s family: ’the much younger brother prone to intellectually stray’.

Crick will be sorely missed, said Watson. ’Until his death, Francis was the person with whom I could most easily talk about ideas.’ 

Francis Crick was born in Northampton, UK, on 8 June, 1916. He gained a basic education in chemistry, physics and maths at Northampton Grammar School and Mill Hill School in London, UK, before completing a BSc in physics at University College, London, in 1937. 

He began studying for a PhD, but this came to an abrupt halt in 1939 with the outbreak of war. During World War II he helped to design magnetic and acoustic mines for the British Admiralty. 

By 1947 his interest in physics had diminished and he inclined instead to what he referred to as ’the border between living and the nonliving’ - better known today as molecular biology. In 1949 he joined the Medical Research Council Unit headed by Max Perutz, housed in the Cavendish Laboratory at the University of Cambridge. Here, he began working on x-ray diffraction and was joined in 1951 by James Watson.

After the double-helix triumph, Crick continued to work with Watson on the structure of small viruses. Later, he joined Sydney Brenner, also at Cambridge, to work on protein synthesis and the genetic code. By 1966, Crick had apparently decided that, with molecular biology safely in hand, it was time to move on to new areas, and so began to work on embryology.

In 1976, he embarked on a year’s sabbatical at the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California, US. The following year Crick ended his 30 year stint at Cambridge, UK and moved to the Salk. The geographical shift was no greater than his shift in research focus. Since 1977, Crick worked on the nature of consciousness - looking for a link between the mind and the brain. He remained at the Salk, last occupying the post of J W Kieckhefer Distinguished Research Professor in the Center for Theoretical Biology.

Crick spent an illustrious research career looking for new challenges. In his autobiographical book What mad pursuit: a personal view of scientific discovery, first published in 1988, he argued that brain sciences were at the same stage as molecular biology had been in the 1930s.

In addition to the Nobel prize, Crick received numerous honours including the Lasker Award, the Prix Charles Meyer of the French Academy of Sciences and the Royal Society’s highest award, the Copley medal. He was a Fellow of the Royal Society, and member of the US National Academy of Sciences, and the French Academy of Sciences. Last year the Royal Society established a prize lecture in his honour following an endowment by Sydney Brenner from Brenner’s award of the 2002 Nobel prize in Physiology or Medicine. The Francis Crick Lecture is awarded annually to recognise the achievements of younger researchers in the biological sciences. 

Bea Perks