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Robert Olby on Francis Crick (1916-2004)

The discovery of the double helix by Watson and Crick in 1953 must be the most widely reported molecular structure determination of the 20th century. In 1951, with a passion for DNA and a background of ornithology, genetics and phages, Watson went to Cambridge, England, where Crick taught him some crystallography. Prior to 1949, Crick had been a physics research student in London, a Royal Navy scientist, and then a researcher in cell biology at the Strangeways Laboratory near Cambridge. In 1949 he joined Max Perutz at the new Medical Research Council Research Unit in Molecular Biology at Cambridge. In addition to intellect, energy, enthusiasm and verbosity, Crick had an immense power of concentration when reading scientific books and papers. Indeed, he wrote that, while the double helix would doubtless have been discovered by others within a year or two, what Watson and he should be credited with was for taking the trouble to learn about X-ray crystallography as well as other diverse topics. Much of Crick's achievement derived from incessant intellectual argument with, in turn over the decades, three brilliant, appreciably younger, international collaborators including the American James Watson, author of The Double Helix, the tone of which Crick did not like. His longest collaboration was at the MRC Unit in Cambridge with Sydney Brenner, of Lithuanian extraction but brought up in South Africa. In his later years, Crick communicated about consciousness with Christof Koch, whose early life had been in Europe, North Africa, and North America.

In 2006, the science writer Matt Ridley published a short authoritative and very readable biography of Crick without references or index. Robert Olby, a science historian, first encountered Crick in 1966 and, with Crick's encouragement, has written in the past about Crick and the path to the double helix, as well as composing biographies of many of the associated scientists. He has now produced a full authoritative scholarly biography, Francis Crick: Hunter of Life's Secrets (Cold Spring Harbor Press, 2009), with index, notes of sources, timeline, biographical sketches of many of the scientists involved, and an excellent collection of photographs. Olby describes Crick's comfortable home background and education in England and how a brilliant scientist emerges from what had seemed a merely rather clever one. He relates both the pre-crystallographic life of Crick and the later years on neuroscience at the Salk Institute in the USA. This biography, by an author knowledgeable about the history of molecular biology, describes the life of a Nobel prizewinner whose passion for the science between the living and the non-living took him into embryology, neuroscience and the study of consciousness. It is highly recommended, but those with more limited time or less interest should not ignore Ridley's briefer life story, which is perhaps rather better on the personal side.

Derry W. Jones

Editors' note: For additional views on the history of the discovery of the double helix see 'Rosalind Franklin and DNA' by Anne Sayre and/or 'Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA' by Brenda Maddox.