Remembering Francis Crick

I read the famous “double helix” letter by James Watson and Francis Crick in Nature when it was published in 1953—I was an undergraduate at Oxford then, reading physiology and biochemistry. I would like to say that I immediately saw its tremendous significance, but this was not the case for me or, indeed, for most people at the time.

It was only in 1962, when Francis Crick came to talk at Mount Zion Hospital in San Francisco, where I was interning, that I started to realize the vast implications of the double helix. Crick’s talk at Mount Zion was not on the configuration of DNA but on the work he had been doing with the molecular biologist Sidney Brenner to determine how the sequence of DNA bases could specify the amino acid sequence in proteins. They had just shown, after four years of intense work, that the translation involved a three-nucleotide code. This was itself a discovery no less momentous than the discovery of the double helix.

But Crick’s mind was always moving forward, and clearly he had already moved on to other things. There were, he intimated in his talk, two “other things,” great enterprises whose exploration lay in the future: understanding the origin and nature of life, and understanding the relation of brain and mind—in particular, the biological basis of consciousness. Did he have any inkling, any conscious thought, when he spoke to us in 1962, that these would be the very subjects he himself would address in the years to come, once he had “dealt with” molecular biology, or at least taken it to the stage where it could be delegated to others?

It was not until May of 1986 that I met Francis Crick, at a conference in San Diego. There was a big crowd, full of neuroscientists, but when it was time to sit down for dinner, Crick singled me out, seized me by the shoulders, sat me down next to him, and said, “Tell me stories!” I have no memory of what we ate, or anything else about the dinner, only that I told him stories about many of my patients, and that each one set off bursts of hypotheses, theories, suggestions for investigation in his mind. Writing to Crick a few days later, I said that the experience was “a little like sitting next to an intellectual nuclear reactor…. I never had a feeling of such incandescence.”

He was especially eager to hear stories of visual perception, and was fascinated when I told him of a patient who had consulted me a few weeks before, an artist who had experienced a sudden and total loss of color perception following a car accident (his loss of color vision was accompanied by an inability to visualize or to dream in color). Crick was also fascinated when I told him how a number of my migraine patients had experienced, in the few minutes of a migraine aura, a flickering of static, “frozen …

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