'Not many scientists can claim immortality'

August 6, 2004

Francis Crick, the scientist who unlocked the secret of DNA, may have achieved the ultimate prize - immortality.

Academics across the disciplines and on both sides of the Atlantic this week talked to The Times Higher about how Professor Crick, who died last Tuesday at the Thornton Hospital in California, aged 88, had influenced both their work and personal lives.

Sir Alec Jeffreys, professor of genetics at Leicester University, explained: "His legend will be an enduring one. Darwin obtained immortality, and Crick and Watson have achieved the same. There aren't many scientists who can claim that," Sir Alec said.

In February 1953, 36-year-old Professor Crick announced to drinkers at the Eagle pub in Cambridge that he and his 24-year-old American collaborator, James Watson, had discovered the secret of life: the double helix structure of DNA molecules.

Their discovery has been heralded as one of the greatest in science, profoundly shaping research in areas as diverse as genetics and archaeology.

Professor Crick devoted his final years to brain science, exploring the neural correlates of consciousness.

Martin Jones, George Pitt-Rivers professor of archaeological science, Cambridge University
"Three of the central questions that archaeology poses can now be addressed only with the DNA science that sprung from the work of Crick and his colleagues.

"The double helix made biology incredibly exciting. I can remember no other school or university subject in which the notion of discovery was more immediate.

"Crick's contribution may have been as important in firing up the enthusiasm of a generation that now occupies senior positions in a variety of fields, as it was in the substantive terms of his major findings."

Cristoph Koch, professor of computation and neural systems, California Institute of Technology
"Francis Crick was a close personal friend and my mentor for the past 16 years. He was the epitome of what it is to be a scholar: brilliant, rational, dispassionate and always willing to revise his own opinions and views in the light of the actions of a universe that never ceased to astonish him.

"He was editing a manuscript on his deathbed, a scientist until the bitter end."

Geraint Rees, senior clinical research fellow, Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, UCL
"I'm a young researcher whose main topic of inquiry is the neural correlates of consciousness. I wouldn't have the grant I have today without the work done by Francis Crick and others in the early 1990s in standing up and explaining why it was an important area of scientific inquiry.

"Crick stopped people sitting in armchairs and thinking about whether there was a mind and a soul, and encouraged them to get up and do experiments."

Nigel Unwin, head of neurobiology, Laboratory of Molecular Biology, Cambridge
"Francis was unlike almost all other scientists in terms of the breadth of his interests and his associations with people from all walks of life. Both he and Odile (Crick's second wife) were extremely generous in that regard - always having all sorts of people around for dinner and parties.

"It always amazed me that Francis could take on all these other interests and yet, as a scientist, accomplish more than any of us. One of his approaches, which I have tried to follow, is to categorise things by putting them into what he called 'black boxes'.

"Something in a black box does not need to be understood in detail to enlighten the question you are trying to answer. In that way, you can narrow the focus of your research efforts and give more detailed consideration to the problem that needs it."

Kay Davies, head of department of human anatomy and gentics, Oxford University
"He could often be aggressive, yet in discussions he immediately made one relax. He was a wonderful talker with so many exciting thoughts to share."

Colin Blakemore, chief executive, Medical Research Council
"We have to ask ourselves seriously whether Francis Crick would have survived as a young researcher in today's environment. If the answer is 'no', we need to question the nature of that environement."

Sir Alec Jeffreys, professor of genetics, Leicester University, and inventor of genetic fingerprinting
"I live every day in Francis Crick's very long shadow. It was his genius together with Jim Watson - by pure brain power coming up with the structure of DNA - that laid the foundations for molecular biology.

"Everything we have ever done here is based on that discovery back in 1953."

Hugh Huxley, professor of biology, Brandeis University
"I was the first research student (at the Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge) and Francis arrived a few months later.

"I nearly wept when I heard that he had died, although he had been very ill for some time. It brought back the extraordinary memories of those days.

"At the time, we didn't think we were doing anything special. It was purely about intellectual interest. We were just doing the right thing at the right time.

"My advice to young scientists would be: as long as what you are doing is intellectually exciting and the techniques you are using have a chance of finding some concrete information, press on. You may go further than you expect."

Julia King, chief executive, Institute of Physics
"I was disappointed that, in much of the coverage of Francis Crick's death, the references were to Crick and Watson's great discovery - there was no mention of Rosalind Franklin."

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