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Francis CrickDiscoverer of the Genetic Code
By Matt Ridley
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2006 Matt Ridley
All right reserved.
Francis harry compton crick was born on 8 June 1916, at the height of World War I. The day before he was born, the news had broken that Lord Kitchener, Britain's celebrated minister of war, had been killed on board a cruiser bound for Russia. When Crick was a few weeks old, the first day of the battle of the Somme would claim 20,000 British lives. Far away from all this death, Crick was born at home in Holmfield Way in Northampton, a middle-class street in a middle-size town in the middle of the English Midlands. He was the son of a shoe manufacturer, Northampton being the shoemaking capital of Britain. Its streets were full of workshops and factories where leather-aproned workers still hammered and stitched soles, heels, and uppers. Shoemaking was an increasingly mechanised trade, thanks partly to the invention of one Thomas Crick of Leicester, who in 1853 took out a patent for an improved method of fixing uppers to soles with tacks or rivets instead of stitches. But, perhaps fortunately for posterity, Thomas Crick was no ancestor of Francis, who consequently was spared the distractions of great wealth.
Crick's Y chromosome had not wandered far in two centuries, or perhaps formuch longer. Crick is not an uncommon surname in the Midlands, the village of Crick in Northamptonshire being its probable origin. In 1861 Francis's great-grandfather Charles Crick was a fairly prosperous farmer, employing 20 men and boys on his 231 acres at Pindon End farm near the lace-making village of Hanslope just 10 miles south of Northampton. Charles's second son, Walter Drawbridge Crick, born in 1857, took a job as a clerk in the goods department of the London and Northwestern Railway, whose track bisected his father's farm. He soon switched to working as a travelling salesman for a shoemaker called Smeed and Warren. In 1880, when he was just 22 years old, he joined two others to start his own boot and shoe factory: Latimer, Crick, and Gunn, at Green Street, Northampton. (The churchyard at Hanslope has several Latimers buried in it, as well as some Cricks, so perhaps Latimer was a family friend.) The business thrived and expanded to Madras in India. At one time it also had five shops in London, and later it made military boots for those doomed young men at the Somme. By 1898 William Latimer and Thomas Gunn had retired, leaving Walter Crick the sole owner of the firm. He did well enough to build a substantial stone mansion, Nine Springs Villa, on Billing Road on the eastern side of Northampton. But five years later Walter Crick (at age 47) died of a heart attack, leaving the firm in the hands of his widow, Sarah -- who survived him by 31 years -- and two of his four sons, Walter and Harry, who carried on the business until it failed during the Depression.
The original Walter's enthusiasm for shoes, lucrative though it was, seems to have come second to his passion for science, and for collecting -- fossils, books, stamps, coins, porcelain, and furniture. His friends found him energetic and argumentative. Said one, in terms that might later have been applied to the grandson: "He was just as fond of springing a new and carefully stored fact into a discussion as he was of trumping a suit the first time round." He was an amateur naturalist of some local repute, who eventually wrote a two-part survey of the Liassic foraminifera of Northamptonshire and had two gastropods named after him. On foot and bicycle, he wandered the lanes of Northamptonshire collecting fossils and turning over rocks to look for snails. It was a tiny mollusc that caused Walter, grandfather of the greatest biologist of the twentieth century, to forge a brief link with the greatest biologist of the nineteenth: Charles Darwin.
It happened thus. On Saturday, 18 February 1882, Walter Crick was out hunting for water beetles (a curious occupation in winter, surely). We know this because later that day he wrote hesitantly to Darwin to report what he had found. "I secured a female Dytiscus marginalis," he told the great evolutionist, "with a small bivalve [cockle] that I think is Sphaerium corneum very firmly attached to its leg." Darwin replied three days later with a barrage of questions. He wanted to know the length and breadth of the shell, and how much of the leg (which leg?) had been caught; and he suggested a communication to the magazine Nature. To a young railway clerk turned shoemaker with (to judge by his handwriting) only a rudimentary education, this reply must have been a matter for some excitement. Crick replied with not only the answers, but also the beetle and the shell. Both arrived alive, so Darwin put the "wretched" insect in a bottle with chopped laurel leaves, "that it may die an easy and quicker death." He then sent both specimens off to an expert on shells for identification, but the expert was away and the specimens were returned, broken, by a servant. Meanwhile, Crick had returned to the same pond on a Sunday and found a dead frog with a cockle of the same kind attached to its foot. On 6 April, Darwin published a letter in Nature describing Crick's cockles, as a triumphant vindication of his long-held theory that peripatetic molluscs hitch lifts with other animals to get from pond to pond. It was to be Darwin's last publication: 13 days later, he died.
Walter and Sarah Crick had five children, born between 1886 and 1898. They were destined to grow to adulthood just as the relative peace and freedom of Edwardian England vanished, and they suffered their share of disappointments in the 30 years of war and slump that followed. The eldest, Walter, as senior director of the business, gets the family's blame for the failure of the shoe firm in the mid-1930s. One of the causes -- or consequences -- may have been his passionate interest in a . . .
Excerpted from Francis Crick by Matt Ridley Copyright © 2006 by Matt Ridley. Excerpted by permission.
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“Matt Ridley’s Francis Crick perceptively and warmly recounts the extraordinary life of the 20th century’s most important biologist.”
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“Lucid and riveting . . . Completely captivating, a lively and deeply intriguing account of one of biology’s most imaginative scientists.”
“Ridley captures Crick’s audacity, brilliance and, not least, eloquence…An excellent first biography”
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