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Summary Article: Crick, Francis Harry Compton (1916–2004) from Encyclopedia of Global Health

Francis Crick was an English physicist and molecular biologist who discovered the structure of the DNA molecule in 1953 together with James D. Watson and Maurice Wilkins. With them, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1962 for the relevance of their discovery in furthering the understanding of information transfer in living material.

Francis Crick was born on June 8, 1916, in Northampton, United Kingdom, the eldest son of Harry Crick and Annie Elizabeth Wilkins. His family, who owned a shoe factory, was extremely religious, but Francis was drawn from a very early age to scientific explanation rather than religious dogmas. He first attended Northampton Grammar School, then at age 14 obtained a scholarship to study mathematics, physics, and chemistry at Mill Hill School in London. He later studied physics at University College, London, from where he graduated with a B.Sc. in 1937. Crick started a Ph.D. on the viscosity of water at high temperatures under Professor Edward Neville da Costa Andrade. His postgraduate studies were interrupted by World War II. During the war, Crick worked at the Admiralty Mining Establishment devising new magnetic and acoustic mines that defied German minesweepers.

After the war, Crick started to study biology, making a decisive transition in his career. Supported by a Medical Research Studentship, Crick worked at the Stangeways Laboratory in Cambridge where he researched the physical properties of cytoplasm. In 1949, Crick joined the Medical Research Council Unit led by M.F. Perutz at the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge where he started the research that would eventually earn him the Nobel Prize. A year after joining the Cavendish Laboratory, Crick again became a research student, enrolling for a Ph.D. at Caius College, Cambridge, and studying X-ray diffraction. These were intellectually challenging years for Crick, who had to learn the elements of organic chemistry and crystallography.

While at Cambridge, Crick met James Watson and the two became close friends. Their friendship led to common research interests and, eventually, to their theory of the double-helical structure of DNA in 1953 and their description of the structure of small viruses. The hypothesis of the DNA helix was followed by an enduring controversy with King’s College, London, as Maurice Wilkins, who had worked there, joined Crick and Watson. Wilkins showed them X-ray diffraction images originally produced at King’s College by himself, Raymond Gosling, and Rosalind Franklin. These images proved to be crucial in Crick and Watson’s discovery as they were evidence of the helical structure of DNA. In the 1960s, Crick worked in the fields of biochemistry and genetics, stimulating research in protein synthesis, the genetic code, and on acridine-type mutants.

Crick is closely identified with Cambridge University. However, he lectured in many universities, including Harvard. In 1977, he left Cambridge, refusing the Mastership of Gonville and Caius College after it had been offered to Italian geneticist Guido Pontecorvo, who had also refused. Crick then went to work at Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California, where he had been a nonresident fellow since 1960 and had spent his sabbatical from Cambridge in 1976.

At the Salk Institute, Crick began the second part of his career which has received less attention than the first. There, he specialized in neuroanatomy and neuroscience, which in the 1980s became his main field of research. Crick was struck by the many different and unconnected disciplines in neuroscience and by the consideration of consciousness as a taboo. He hoped to encourage interactions between the different disciplines of neuroscience to address the issue of consciousness. In his investigations, Crick worked with the philosopher Patricia Churchland and neuroscientist Christof Koch. Crick and Koch focused in particular on how the brain produces visual awareness a few hundred milliseconds after viewing a scene. Crick challenged computational models describing how the brain worked, as they were not based on observations of brain structure and function.

Crick received many awards and honors during his career. He was made a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1959. In 1962 he was elected a Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He was awarded the Prix Charles Leopold Meyer of the French Academy of Sciences in 1961, and the Award of Merit of the Gairdner Foundation in 1962. With the codiscoverers of DNA structure Watson and Wilkins, he was given a Lasker Foundation Award in 1960. Crick was elected a fellow of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal in 1983 and a Humanist Laureate of the International Academy of Humanism in the same year.

Crick did not isolate himself in his laboratory away from wider social issues. In 1987, concerned that some of his research on the genetic code might be used to support creationism, Crick publicly joined a group of Nobel Prize winners demanding a ban on teaching creationism in schools. He also spoke in favor of the establishment of Darwin Day as a national British holiday. In 1995 the scientist endorsed the Ashley Montagu Resolution demanding an end to the genital mutilation of children. He was also one of the founding members of SOMA, an organization that tried to prevent the criminalization of cannabis.

Crick died of colon cancer on July 28, 2004, at San Diego Thorton Hospital, California. As he requested, he was cremated and his ashes were scattered in the Pacific Ocean. His memory is honored with the Francis Crick Prize Lectures at the Royal Society, London, and the Francis Crick Graduate Lectures at the University of Cambridge.

  • Avery, Oswald Theodore (1877–1955); Base Pair; DNA; Genetic Code; Watson, James.

  • Francis Crick, What Mad Pursuit: A Personal View of Scientific Discovery (Basic Books, 1990).
  • Edward Edelson, Francis Crick and James Watson: And the Building Blocks of Life (Oxford University Press, 2000).
  • Luca Prono
    Independent Scholar
    Copyright © 2008 by SAGE Publications, Inc.

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