His discovery of DNA structure changed face of science

Insights laid foundations for molecular biology field

Francis H.C. Crick : 1916-2004

July 30, 2004|By Erika Niedowski | Erika Niedowski,SUN STAFF

Francis H.C. Crick, the Nobel laureate whose co-discovery of DNA's "double-helix" reshaped modern genetics and led to the creation of an indispensable tool for pursuits ranging from curing disease to fighting crime, died Wednesday in a hospital in San Diego. He was 88.

The resident of La Jolla, Calif., had suffered from colon cancer for several years.

An intensely curious, creative man, Dr. Crick is best known for the two-year collaboration with James D. Watson that yielded a stunning architectural description of the basic building blocks of life.

In a letter published in the journal Nature in April 1953, Dr. Crick and his eager young colleague from Cambridge University introduced their findings in the humblest of terms: "We wish to suggest a structure for the salt of deoxyribose nucleic acid (D.N.A.). This structure has novel features which are of considerable biological interest."

Nine years later, they would stand on a stage in Stockholm, Sweden, and accept science's highest honor, the Nobel, in the category of physiology or medicine. They shared the award with Maurice Wilkins of Britain.

By co-discovering DNA's curvaceous, ladder-like structure, Dr. Crick helped turn a once-obscure molecule into a cultural icon and scientific force whose impact is hard to overestimate. DNA has become the key to a vast array of scientific and commercial pursuits, including the development of genetically engineered foods and research into the origins of the human species.

None of it would have been possible without the insights of Drs. Crick and Watson in 1953, which laid the foundations for the field of molecular biology.

"The whole DNA revolution pretty much started right there," said Dr. Victor A. McKusick, who founded the division of medical genetics at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.

"He was the generalissimo," science historian Horace Freeland Judson said of Dr. Crick, whom he considered a friend. "He was the one who gave intellectual discipline to the whole field as it was growing."

In a statement from his office in Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York, Dr. Watson honored Dr. Crick "for his extraordinarily focused intelligence and for the many ways he showed me kindness and developed my self confidence."

For all his accomplishments, Dr. Crick was not a bench scientist, toiling with test tubes and beakers. Rather, he was a theoretician whom colleagues described as intellectually ruthless. "Essentially I read and think," he said.

Dr. Crick, who was born June 8, 1916, in Northampton, England, earned a bachelor's degree in physics from University College in London. He began studying there for his doctorate but was interrupted by World War II.

Although he had intended to resume his studies in physics after the war, Dr. Crick had second thoughts and turned his eye to biology instead.

He became a lab scientist at Cambridge's Cavendish Laboratory in 1949 and two years later, met Dr. Watson.

After the groundbreaking discovery, Dr. Crick remained at Cambridge, living in a house he called the Golden Helix while working to crack the genetic code.

"No one man discovered or created molecular biology," molecular biologist Jacques Monod said, according to an account of Dr. Crick's life in Current Biography. "But one man dominates intellectually the whole field, because he knows the most and understands the most: Francis Crick."

Later in life, Dr. Crick again switched gears, becoming a leading theorist on consciousness and the inner workings of the brain. He moved to the United States in the mid-1970s, joining the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla.

"Francis Crick will be remembered as one of the most brilliant and influential scientists of all time," the institute's president, Richard A. Murphy, said in a statement yesterday.

Aravinda Chakravarti, director of the McKusick-Nathans Institute of Genetic Medicine at Hopkins, said Dr. Crick's work changed the face of science.

"Science becomes a science when we can answer the question of why," he said. "Francis Crick clearly was one of the people who in genetics solved the structure of DNA and many other things that really helped begin to answer the question why. Before, it was just experimental.

"All of us discover things all the time. But our discoveries are probably small. Every now and then, someone comes across a great discovery. Watson and Crick came across a really great - fantastic - discovery. It opened doors that most discoveries don't open."

Known for his quick wit, Dr. Crick famously shunned the spotlight and for four decades refused to grant interviews to the press. He was asked in 1994 by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch what it was like to have made such an important discovery.

"It's difficult to answer that," he said. "There wasn't any special feeling that we were something special or anything of that sort. We were people with some new ideas and other people were keen to hear them. And this cult gradually developed.

"From my point of view it reached totally unreasonable proportions. It's all a matter of if you live long enough. You either have to die immediately and be thought to be a genius who was going to do all sorts of things, or you have to go on and live a very long time."

Sun staff writer Michael Stroh and the Chicago Tribune contributed to this article.

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