Nobel Prize-winning scientist Francis Crick, who
co-discovered the spiral, "double-helix"
structure of DNA in 1953 and opened the way for everything from
gene-spliced crops and medicines to DNA fingerprinting and the
genetic detection of diseases, has died. He was 88.
Crick died Wednesday after a battle with
colon cancer, according to the Salk
Institute, the research body where Crick worked in recent years.
The British-born Crick was 36 and working at the University of
Cambridge's Cavendish Laboratory in 1953 when he and the
American-born James Watson, just 24, struck upon the idea that the
DNA molecule resembles a twisted ladder.
After making the discovery, Crick walked into a Cambridge pub and
announced that he and Watson had "found the secret of life." But
only a few people at the time "even thought it was interesting,"
Crick once said, and it took years before the
groundbreaking discovery was firmly accepted.
Decades later, the discovery's impact can be seen everywhere. It
laid the foundation for the biotechnology industry, enabling
scientists to engineer bigger tomatoes, doctors to pursue gene therapy to treat
disease, and police to solve crimes through DNA evidence.
Biotechnology is a $30 billion-a-year industry that has produced
some 160 drugs and vaccines, treating everything from breast cancer
to diabetes. Seven million farmers in 18 countries grew genetically
engineered crops last year, allowing them to grow food with fewer
"It's almost too difficult to pay him high enough tribute for
what he contributed," said Stanford University scientist Paul Berg,
who won the Nobel in chemistry in 1980 for his pioneering work with
Crick's work "helped to usher in a golden age of molecular biology," said
Lord May of Oxford, president of Britain's academy of scientists,
the Royal Society.
Crick and Watson were awarded the Nobel in medicine in 1962.
Watson's 1968 best seller "The Double Helix" told how he and
Crick used bits of wire, colored beads, sheet metal and cardboard
cutouts to construct a 3-D model of the molecule.
Deoxyribonucleic acid, or DNA, is made up of four chemical
building blocks, known as "bases." Each "rung" in the twisted ladder
is made up of two bases, and the various combinations of bases and
the order in which the rungs are arranged spell out the information stored in genes.
Building on their work and that of others over the decades,
scientists can now alter genes to breed out disease and breed
in desired traits.
That newfound power has stirred ethical debates, but Crick said
there was no way in the 1950s that he could have foretold modern DNA
"Think of the effect television has had worldwide on politics,"
he said. "You can't possibly expect the man who invented the transistor to have seen
In a statement Thursday, Watson hailed Crick "for his
extraordinarily focused intelligence and for the many ways he showed
me kindness and developed my self-confidence."
"He treated me as though I were a member of his family," Watson
said. "Being with him for two years in a small room in Cambridge was
truly a privilege. I always looked forward to being with him and
speaking to him, up until the moment of his death."
In person Crick was provocative, quick-witted and charming,
though he rarely consented to interviews. He was averse to attention
of any sort, he said, not because he was anti-social but because it
cut into his thinking
Unlike many scientists, Crick did not spend his days
toiling in a lab or instructing students. Instead, he read and mused
in his Salk Institute office overlooking the Pacific Ocean, putting
in full days well beyond retirement age. He had come to Salk after
resigning from the Cambridge faculty in 1977.
Watson and Crick benefited from work by researchers Maurice
Wilkins and Rosalind Franklin of King's College in London. Wilkins
shared the Nobel with the two men; Franklin died in 1958. Nobel
prizes are not awarded posthumously.
Francis Harry Compton Crick was born in Northampton, England, in
1916 to a shoe factory owner and his wife, who bought their young
son a children's encyclopedia to help answer his many science
questions. He studied physics at University College of London and
then built underwater mines for the British government during World
After the war, Crick became interested in "the division between
the living and the non-living" and decided to teach himself biology
Among Crick's writings was "Life Itself: Its Origin and Nature,"
a book suggesting that the Earth began when microorganisms were
dropped by a spaceship from a higher civilization. In another treatise, Crick proposed
that dreams exist to let the brain do some housecleaning, to clear
itself for the next set of tasks.
Crick acknowledged that some of his postulations were offbeat and speculative.
But, he told The Associated Press in 1994, "A man who is right every
time is not likely to do very much."
Crick is survived by his wife, artist Odile Speed; three
children; and four grandchildren. The family will hold a private
funeral service, his wife said.