Planet Earth

TRIBUTE: Francis Crick (1916-2004)

By Josie GlausiuszJul 30, 2004 12:00 AM

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Francis Crick, codiscoverer of the structure of DNA, died at age 88 on July 28.

On February 28, 1953, Francis Crick raced into a dingy Cambridge pub and announced the finding of “the secret of life,” the structure of DNA. That, at least, was how his collaborator James Watson recounted it in his bombastic 1968 book, The Double Helix. Crick, the less flamboyant member of the team, later claimed not to remember the incident. Instead, he said, he went home and told his wife Odile that he “seemed to have made a big discovery.”

That discovery was in fact the most significant in 20th-century biology. Elucidating the double-helical genetic blueprint of DNA—a finding based in part on key data supplied unknowingly by X-ray crystallographer Rosalind Franklin—set in motion future research in which Crick helped reveal how DNA codes for proteins, the building blocks of life. It also laid the groundwork for the Human Genome Project and the mighty biotech industry. In 1962 Crick and Watson were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

Crick did not stop at DNA. In 1976 he left Cambridge and moved to the Salk Institute in La Jolla California. Collaborating with Caltech cognitive scientist Christof Koch, he set out to find what he called “the neural correlates of consciousness,” arguing that brain chemistry—as opposed to anything mystical—was responsible for human thought, memory, identity, and free will. (For a quick take on Koch’s book The Quest for Consciousness:A Neurobiological Approach, see the Reviews section of Discover’s upcoming October issue.) As for DNA, Crick was disarmingly modest about his role in revealing its nature. “We were lucky,” he once said. “Like America, it was just waiting to be discovered.”

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