Francis Crick, DNA pioneer and English gentleman, dies

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The Independent Online

Tributes were paid yesterday to Francis Crick, the British scientist and DNA pioneer who died at his home in California on Tuesday after a long battle with cancer. He was 88.

Crick shared the Nobel Prize in 1962 with James Watson, with whom he made the most momentous discovery in modern biology. He and Watson were working at the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge when, in 1953, they realised that the DNA molecule consisted of a double helix, a structure that opened up an explanation for the inheritance of genes.

Watson was seen as the brash young American, but Crick was the quintessential English gentleman, although he was radical enough never to accept the knighthood both were offered. Watson, a former head of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory on Long Island, New York, said: "I will always remember Francis 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. 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. He will be sorely missed."

In addition to a Nobel Prize, Crick had a string of academic achievements. He became a fellow of the Royal Society in 1959 and won the Copley Medal in 1975, the Royal Society's premier scientific award.

Lord May of Oxford, the president of the Royal Society, said yesterday: "Francis Crick made an enormous contribution to science and his discoveries helped to usher in a golden age of molecular biology. His death is a sad loss to science."

Crick, whom Watson had once jokingly described as a man never known to be in a modest mood, was, in fact, a self-effacing man who did not court publicity. In his later years, he moved from Cambridge to the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California, investigating the nature of human consciousness.

Richard Murphy, the Salk's president, said Crick will be remembered as one of the most brilliant and influential scientists of all time. "He will be missed a gentleman, a role model and a person who has contributed so much to our understanding of biology and the health of mankind," Dr Murphy said. Crick realised human consciousness was perhaps the biggest outstanding mystery of life on Earth. He said he wanted to excite younger minds than his to study the problem.

Professor Kristof Koch, a neuroscientist who collaborated closely with Crick at the Salk institute, said he never lost his impish ways. "Francis delighted in playing the important role of devil's advocate for several generations of young researchers," he said.

Crick, who was born in Northampton in 1916, started as a physicist and worked briefly for the Admiralty during the Second World War then returned to Cambridge to study for a doctorate. Asked in 1997 why he went into the study of DNA, Crick said that at the time he did not really know what he wanted to do.

"I used what I call the 'gossip test' to describe what I wanted to do. The gossip test is simply that whatever you find yourself gossiping about is what you're really interested in," he said. "I had found my two main interests I discussed the most were what today would be called molecular biology, what I referred to as the borderline between living and the non-living, and the workings of the brain."

Professor Steve Jones, the geneticist, said Crick was the Darwin of the 20th century, and the science writer Matt Ridley said Crick made more than one great discovery. "He found that genes are digital codes written on DNA molecules, he found that the code is written in three-letter words and he was instrumental in cracking the code," Dr Ridley said. "Any one of those would have got him a place in the scientific pantheon. Discovering all three places him alongside Newton, Darwin and Einstein."

David Giachardi, the chief executive of the Royal Society of Chemistry, said Crick's work on DNA cannot be underestimated. "He and Watson performed a gigantic service for humanity, and it the astonishing strides taken since his pioneering work are just the very beginning of a scientific journey for mankind," Dr Giachardi said.

Dr Roger Pederson, of Cambridge University, said: "What we owe Francis Crick cannot be said briefly because it is so vast. His legacy will be remembered for centuries."

Professor Richard Gardner, of Oxford University, said: "From my contact with him at Cambridge, I would rank Francis Crick as one of the greatest minds of the 20th century. He was a theoretician rather than an experimentalist, and was extremely perceptive."