Francis Crick

Francis Crick biography

20/3/03. By Georgina Ferry

An overview of the life and times of Francis Crick.

Francis Harry Compton Crick was born 8 June 1916 in Northampton, England. Having attended schools in Northampton and North London, in 1934, aged 18, Crick began studying physics at University College London, graduating in 1937.

Crick remained at UCL for graduate studies on the measurement of viscosity of water at high temperatures. These studies were nearly complete, but were interrupted by the outbreak of World War II. He joined the British Admiralty Research Laboratory, where he helped to design 'noncontact' magnetic and acoustic mines, and remained there for a time after the war, assigned to scientific intelligence.

In 1947, Crick moved to the Strangeways Laboratory, Cambridge, where he studied the physical properties of cytoplasm in cultured fibroblast cells with Arthur Hughes. Two years later he joined the Medical Research Unit at Cavendish Laboratory. There, a team led by Max Perutz was using X-ray crystallography to discover the structure of proteins – a subject that became the topic of Crick's PhD thesis.

In 1951, James Watson arrived at the Cavendish and met Crick. The two quickly became friends and embarked on an attempt to uncover the structure of DNA. Crick brought to the project his knowledge of X-ray diffraction, while Watson brought knowledge of phage and bacterial genetics.

Combining evidence from biochemistry, X-ray diffraction images created by Rosalind Franklin and Maurice Wilkins, and physical clues from molecular models, they determined the three-dimensional structure of the DNA molecule to be a double helix.

This discovery was published in the 25 April 1953 edition of the journal Nature. The order of the names on the paper (Watson and Crick) was decided by the flip of a coin. This paper was quickly followed by another that suggested a mechanism for the replication of DNA.

After the discovery of the double helix, Crick went to work on finding the relationship between DNA and genetic coding. In 1958, he proposed 'the sequence hypothesis' (that DNA sequence is the code for the amino acid sequence of a protein) and the 'central dogma' (that information goes from DNA to protein, but not back again).

In 1957, Crick began work with Sydney Brenner to determine how the sequence of DNA bases would specify the amino acid sequence in proteins. By 1961, they had shown that translation involves a three-nucleotide code.

In 1962, Crick, Watson and Wilkins are awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine "for their discoveries concerning the molecular structure of nucleic acids and its significance for information transfer in living material".

Crick finally left Cambridge Laboratories in 1976 to become Kieckhefer Professor at Salk Institute for Biological Studies in San Diego, California. It was there that Crick began his studies of the brain and consciousness.

His goal was to understand how neurons operate with various chemical processes in the body, which may show us "exactly how these activities give us our vivid picture of the world and of ourselves and also allow us to act". His book 'The Astonishing Hypothesis: The Scientific Search for the Soul' (1993) further described his ideas.

In addition to the Nobel Prize, his honours included the Lasker Award, the Award of Merit from the Gairdner Foundation, and the Prix Charles Leopold Meyer of the French Academy of Sciences. He was a member of the US National Academy of Sciences, the Royal Society, the French Academy of Sciences and the Irish Academy.

Francis Crick died in July 2004, aged 88.

Francis Crick timeline

1916

Francis Harry Compton Crick is born 8 June in Northampton, England.

1930

Crick wins a scholarship to Mill Hill School, London.

1934

Crick studies physics at University College, London, graduating in 1937. He stays on to do graduate research under Professor E N da C Andrade.

1940

Crick joins the British Admiralty Research Laboratory, helping to design magnetic and acoustic mines.

1947-48

Moves to Strangeways Laboratory, Cambridge, to work with Arthur Hughes on the physical properties of cytoplasm in cultured fibroblast cells. Crick meets and becomes friends with Maurice Wilkins (King's College, London).

1949

Moves to the Medical Research Unit at Cavendish Laboratory, where Max Perutz was using X-ray crystallography to discover the three-dimensional structure of proteins.

1950

Crick begins his second stint as a PhD student (his thesis 'Polypeptides and proteins: X-ray studies' was submitted in July 1953).

1951

James Watson arrives at the Cavendish and meets Crick.

Rosalind Franklin arrives at King's College, London.

Crick and Watson begin work on their first DNA model.

1953

In April, Watson and Crick publish their seminal paper on the structure of DNA: 'Molecular structure of nucleic acids: a structure for deoxyribose nucleic acid'. They follow this in May with another paper that proposes a mechanism for DNA replication.

1955-58

Crick proposes the 'sequence hypothesis' (that DNA sequence is a code for protein sequence), predicts the existence of 'adaptors' (transfer RNAs), and proposes the 'central dogma' (that 'information' flows from DNA to protein, but not back again).

1961

Crick and Sydney Brenner discover that the genetic code is a triplet code.

1962

Crick, Watson and Wilkins are awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine "for their discoveries concerning the molecular structure of nucleic acids and its significance for information transfer in living material".

1976

Crick leaves Cambridge to become Kieckhefer Professor at Salk Institute for Biological Studies in San Diego, California. There, he begins his present studies of the brain.

1988

Crick publishes his intellectual autobiography 'What Mad Pursuit: A Personal View of Scientific Discovery' (New York: Basic Books).

1994

Crick publishes his views on consciousness: 'The Astonishing Hypothesis: The Scientific Search for the Soul' (New York: Charles Scriber's Sons).

2001

Crick's papers are purchased by the Wellcome Library.

2004

Francis Crick dies aged 88.

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