Michael Crick, son of renowned molecular biologist Francis Crick, recalls significant moments from his father’s career—including the important ‘Secret of Life’ letter his father sent to him documenting the discovery of DNA’s structure and replication. The letter will be offered at Christie’s on April 10.
I remember when I was about six, my father studying biology on the kitchen table. My father, Francis Crick, had worked on mines during WWII and, like many physicists, decided after the war to try a different field. He was inspired by the book What is Life by Erwin Schrödinger and chose biology.
At that time there was a prevalent belief that animals and plants were embodied with a “life force” that explained how cells behaved and how like produced like — unknowable mysteries considered to lie beyond our power to comprehend. My father passionately wanted to show that in reality everything could be explained in terms of physics and chemistry. In particular he wanted to solve the central mystery of how the instructions to build a complex organism are stored and copied and exert their effects — what is sometimes called “the secret of life!”
One of my fondest memories of my father was of building models together. We would build towers and cranes with Meccano, the British erector set. In 1952 he made a model of a house he planned to have built. This was made with Plasticine (British modeling clay) and was complete with rooms, furniture, and little people so he could envisage how things would look. He was totally engrossed in this for several weeks. He put great faith in model building.
My father believed that DNA contained some sort of code so he got interested in codes and he shared his enthusiasm with me. For my ninth birthday he gave me a slim volume called “Codes and Cyphers” which I eagerly read from cover to cover. Being the fearless youth that I was, I decided to design my own code. Curiously, my code was like the genetic code but with seven symbols instead of four and with redundant coding for 26 letters instead of 20 amino acids. My father and his logician friend Georg Kreisel had great fun for several days trying to crack it.
Everything came together in February 1953 when my father and Jim Watson were given the go ahead to try and construct a model of DNA. My father built a model with two helical chains on the outside running in opposite directions. Jim Watson then figured out how pairs of bases (A-T and G-C) could fit on the inside and hold the two chains together. On the morning of February 28th the last piece of the puzzle fell into place and it became immediately obvious how the base pairs could act as a code — and also how that code might be copied. It just was “so beautiful” it had to be right. My father’s enthusiasm could not be contained. The story is told of him sweeping excitedly into a local pub called the Eagle and announcing to all who would listen that he had found “the secret of life.”
For the next two weeks my father and Jim Watson excitedly showed off the model and checked all the measurements. Then on March 19th my father wrote to me describing the model and its implications. I was twelve at the time and away at Bedales — a British boarding school. I was in an isolated room recovering from the flu and thus had plenty of time to read the letter and think about it. I remember very clearly memorizing “des-oxy-ribose-nucleic-acid” and following how the code could be copied. He laid out this idea so simply even before the first Nature paper had been sent off. It crystalized the essential content of that paper and the follow-on paper about copying. As far as we know this is the first public description of these ideas that have become the keystone of molecular biology and which have spawned a whole new industry and generations of follow on discoveries.
When my school term ended and I returned to Cambridge my father very proudly showed me the model. I recall him fretting about how the two long DNA chains could unwind as copies were made. There were still many problems to be solved. In fact it was many years before a complete picture emerged. By 1962 the gravity of what Jim Watson and my father had unleashed was apparent and I was lucky enough to be able to go with him to Sweden to watch the King present him with the Nobel Prize. That singular moment on February 28th 1953 when all the pieces suddenly fitted together has to go down as one of the great moments in the history of science. The excitement of the event was beautifully captured for the first time in this “perfect letter” summarizing the nub of the discovery in seven simple pages.
After leaving the MRC in Cambridge, England in 1977, my father spent 27 years at the Salk Institute in La Jolla, CA where he switched his focus to consciousness and attention and other aspects of the functioning of the brain. He helped establish a unit at the Salk called the Crick-Jacobs Center for Theoretical and Computational Biology that is devoted to brain research. The Salk also does research in many other fields related to molecular biology and medicine. My wife, Barbara, and I therefore decided that we would donate a significant portion of the proceeds from the sale of the letter to benefit the Salk to help fund continuing research in ways that my father would have wanted.
The Francis Crick 'Secret of Life' Letter: A remarkable letter to his son, revealing one of the most important scientific discoveries of the 20th century
10 Apr 2013
New York, Rockefeller Plaza
Books & Manuscripts
Books & Manuscripts