Francis Harry Crompton Crick

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Francis Harry Crompton Crick

The English molecular biologist Francis Harry Compton Crick (born 1916) contributed to the establishment of the double-helical model of the DNA molecule.

Francis Crick was born June 8, 1916, in Northampton, England. At University College, London, he studied physics and mathematics and obtained his degree in 1937. Work on an advanced degree was halted by the coming of World War II, when Crick had to shift his interest from pure science to the design and production of magnetic mines. By the time the war ended, he had decided to pursue a career in biology, not physics. His decision was influenced by a reading of the book What Is Life? by physicist Erwin Schrödinger, with its message that an intensive investigation of the gene was likely to reveal the nature of life.

Crick began his study of biology at Strangeways Laboratory, Cambridge, in 1947, but within 2 years he left to join the Medical Research Council Unit for Molecular Biology at Cavendish Laboratory and to enroll as a doctoral student at Caius College, Cambridge. While at Cavendish he met (1951) the young American biologist James D. Watson, who shared his interest in the gene and the genetic material, deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA). In 1953 Crick and Watson jointly proposed their doublehelical model of the DNA molecule, which brought them the Nobel Prize in 1962, an honor they shared with English biophysicist Maurice Wilkins. In addition to the prize, Crick received distinguished lectureships, awards from scientific organizations, and membership in honorary societies, including the Royal Society of London (1959).

The discovery of the structure of DNA is considered to be one of the greatest events in 20th-century biology. Genes are responsible for transferring hereditary information from one generation to the next, and since they are DNA molecules, or segments of them, the structure of DNA provides the key to understanding the physical basis of heredity. The giant DNA molecule is a complex one, and Crick and Watson faced the difficult task of determining the exact arrangement of its molecular subunits. While Wilkins and others attempted to discover this arrangement by concentrating exclusively upon x-ray diffraction techniques, Crick and Watson approached the problem by conceiving and building large-scale models that would account for all the known physical and chemical properties of DNA. Watson first suggested the double helix as the basic feature of DNA, but it was Crick, with his background in physics, who supplied the theoretical and mathematical knowledge so important to the team's success.

Upon completion of the work on the structure of DNA, Crick began an investigation of the genetic code, that is, the precise manner in which the gene controls the synthesis of proteins.

Further Reading

The personal and intellectual story of the discovery of the structure of DNA is told in James D. Watson's candid book The Double Helix (1968), in which Crick is depicted as a genius who exasperated many of his English colleagues but delighted his unconventional American friend. For Crick's statement of his philosophy of biology see his book Of Molecules and Men (1966). Crick is also the author of What Mad Pursuit: A Personal View of Scientific Discovery (1988) and The Astonishing Hypothesis: The Scientific Search for the Soul (1994). □

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Francis Harry Crompton Crick

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