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Francis Harry Compton Crick

Francis Harry Compton Crick

1916-

English Physicist and Molecular Biologist

In 1962 Francis Crick shared the Nobel Prize in Medicine with James Watson (1928- )and Maurice Wilkins (1916- ) for their discoveries concerning the molecular structure of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) and its significance for the transmission of genetic information. Molecular biologists have called the discovery of the double-helical structure of DNA one of the most important developments in twentieth-century biology. The structure of DNA proposed by Crick and Watson in 1953 immediately suggested insights into the nature of the gene, the genetic code, and mechanism by which information stored in DNA was transmitted from generation to generation.

Francis Crick was born in Northampton, England, where his father ran a shoe factory. He attended Northampton Grammar School and entered Mill Hill School in London at the age of 14. Even as a child Crick was extremely curious and interested in scientific discoveries. He confided to his mother that he was afraid that by the time he grew up everything important would have been discovered. He received a degree in physics from University College, London, in 1937. Crick's initial Ph.D. program was interrupted by the outbreak of World War II. During the war, he served as a scientist for the British Admiralty, working on magnetic and acoustic mines.

In his autobiographical memoir What Mad Pursuit: A Personal View of Scientific Discovery, Crick notes that after the war he realized that his qualifications for research appeared to be rather limited. He decided, however, that he could turn his deficiency into an advantage. That is, because he had no particular expertise, he was free to chose entirely new fields of inquiry. Like many physicists of his generation, he became interested biology after reading What is Life? by Erwin Schrödinger (1887-1961). Crick believed that biological research could provide scientific explanations for areas that were regarded as mysteries, such as the borderline between the living and the nonliving and the problems of consciousness, areas now known as molecular biology and neurobiology. He left the Admiralty in 1947 to study biophysics at the Strangeways Research Laboratory. In 1949 he joined the Medical Research Council Unit headed by Max Perutz (1914- ) in Cambridge, where scientists were attempting to determine the structure of proteins by X-ray crystallography. At the time, many scientists still believed that proteins must serve as the chemical basis of the gene, but Crick was open to the possibility that DNA might be involved in gene structure and gene replication. In 1954, after the discovery of the double helix, Crick finally earned his Ph.D. for a thesis entitled "X-ray Diffraction: Polypeptides and Proteins."

In 1951 Crick met James Watson, an American postdoctoral fellow with a background in genetics. Despite differences in personality and scientific training, the two instantly discovered that they shared a passion for discovering the "secret of the gene." Moreover, they were both convinced that DNA, rather than protein, would prove to be the macromolecule responsible for passing genetic information from generation to generation. A solution to the structure of DNA should, therefore, lead to an explanation of the replication of genes. After numerous false starts, in 1953 Watson and Crick arrived at a solution to the three-dimensional structure of DNA on the basis of model building, data from X-ray crystallography studies by Rosalind Franklin (1920-1958), and general knowledge about the chemistry of DNA. After proposing a general scheme for the transmission of genetic information, which became known as the "central dogma," Crick suggested approaches to working out the details of the genetic code and the mechanisms by which information in DNA was copied into RNA and then used in the biosynthesis of proteins.

By the mid-1960s Crick thought that the foundations of molecular biology had been established and he began to explore other intractable problems, such as embryology and the workings of the brain. In 1976 he left the Medical Research Council and joined the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California, where he devoted himself to theoretical studies of the brain, the problem of consciousness, the nature of dreams, and neural networks. Rather than confine himself to the molecular aspects of these problems, he has attempted to incorporate psychological aspects, neuroanatomy, neurophysiology, and related philosophical issues.

LOIS N. MAGNER

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