June 8, 2010
Amateur naturalist Walter Drawbridge Crick was 25 years old when, in February 1882, he found a diving beetle with a tiny mussel clamped to one of its legs. He knew enough to deliver it to the legendary Charles Darwin, whose lengthy catalogue of biological interests included an abiding curiosity regarding the distribution of freshwater bivalves. The beetle stayed a fortnight in Darwin’s possession before its molluscan passenger loosened its grip and fell off, earning both the insect and the observant young beetle-collector from Northhampton a place in one of Darwin’s very last published papers. And thus could Walter’s grandson, FRANCIS CRICK (1916–2004), claim a connection with Darwin by way of living family memory. For his own part, Francis Crick trained in physics; it was not until after research for the Admiralty during World War II that he turned to biology. As a mid-twentieth-century physicist he possessed mathematical acumen and extraordinary hubris. Both qualities would prove useful in the race to determine the structure of deoxyribonucleic acid, or DNA, which was as much a problem in imaging as it was in theoretical biology. Crick’s thesis work in x-ray diffraction was instrumental in making accurate observations of the helical nature of the DNA molecule. In the race to elaborate its structure and limn its crucial role in all living systems, he (with his colleague James Watson, b. 1928) offended competitors, hid his efforts from superiors, and arguably stole crucial results from fellow scientists. His work changed our understanding of biological systems. Like Darwin’s, Crick’s later research was cross-disciplinary and recklessly holistic; his interests included neurobiology and the possible extraterrestrial origins of life. His grandfather’s generation had stared into jars and squinted through lenses; with Francis Crick, biologists extended that spirited curiosity to life’s darkest and most intimate redoubt.
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