Reports of the National Center for Science Education

Francis Crick Dies

Francis Crick, the co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, died on July 28, 2004, in San Diego, at the age of 88.

Crick is probably most famous for discovering the structure of DNA in 1953 in collaboration with James D Watson. At the time, the chemical basis of the gene was not understood. Only a few scientists considered DNA to be the likely carrier of genetic information, in part because DNA is composed of only four subunits, adenine (A), thymine (T), cytosine (C), and guanine (G). Once the structure of DNA was known, however, numerous research programs were developed to investigate the structure and function of genes. One of the most important was the deciphering of the genetic code in the 1950s and 1960s. In collaboration with Sydney Brenner and others, Crick determined that the precise order of bases in DNA specifies the order of amino acids in a protein. They found that each amino acid is represented by a sequence of 3 DNA bases. It then became possible to study in elegant detail the molecular mechanisms by which the proteins are synthesized with the proper sequence of amino acids. In the past two decades, Crick turned his attention to neuroscience, investigating the nature of the mind and consciousness. Over his career, Crick received numerous awards, most notably the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1962, which he shared with Watson and Maurice Wilkins for discovering the structure of DNA. Crick's intellectual spirit, wit, and open-mindedness were admired and emulated by molecular biologists all over the world.

A long-time member of NCSE, Crick was no friend to creationism, although his speculative writings about the possible extraterrestrial origin of life are routinely quoted by anti-evolutionists. In The Astonishing Hypothesis (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons: 1994), he wrote, "The age of the earth is now established beyond any reasonable doubt as very great, yet in the United States millions of Fundamentalists still stoutly defend the naive view that it is relatively short, an opinion deduced from reading the Christian Bible too literally. They also usually deny that animals and plants have evolved and changed radically over such long periods, although this is equally well established. This gives one little confidence that what they have to say about the process of natural selection is likely to be unbiased, since their views are predetermined by a slavish adherence to religious dogmas." Crick signed the amicus brief of 72 Nobel laureates in the Supreme Court case Edwards v Aguillard (1987) that argued "'Creation-science'" simply has no place in the public-school science classroom," and recently signed a letter calling for the establishment of Darwin Day as a British national holiday "[a]t a time when creationism appears to be gaining ground in English schools."

By Susan Spath & Glenn Branch, NCSE
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