Francis Crick is dead
At the age of 88, he has succumbed to cancer of the colon after a long battle. Not many people can be said to have changed the world, but Crick and his colleague James Watson did when they discovered the double-helical structure of DNA — the molecule that determines every form of life — in 1953.
As a teenager, I was fascinated by Watson’s book, The Double Helix, and it was one of the reasons I applied to Cambridge as a student — not because I wanted to do molecular biology, but because I longed to study at a place where such things could happen. When I arrived in 1968, Crick was still working in the University (in the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology), and could often be seen around town.
I ran into him twice in the period before he departed for the Salk Institute in California. The first time was at the party given for E.M. Forster by the Cambridge Humanists (of which Crick was a leading light) to celebrate the writer’s 90th birthday. The second occasion was a quiet Sunday evening in the Berni Inn steak bar which used to be on Trinity Street. My wife and I were having a meal and suddenly Francis and his French wife arrived and took the adjoining table. Given that this was England, we did not of course acknowledge their existence, but I remember being torn by conflicting emotions: pride at being in the vicinity of such a great man; and a guilty amusement that Crick and his spouse spent the entire meal engaged in low-level marital bickering — just like any other boring couple!
Update:Excellent obituary in the New York Times which challenges the myth that Crick and Watson unfairly gained access to the crystallographic data of Rosalind Franklin. One of the things I hadn’t known is that Rosalind spent her last remission from the cancer which killed her in the Cricks’ home.