- Francis Crick: Hunter of Life's Secrets
Francis Crick: Hunter of Life's Secrets is a detailed biographical account, ranging from discussions of Francis Crick's various scientific contributions to gossip that lacks direct scientific relevance. Robert Olby justified this approach because of the celebrity acquired by Crick when his involvement with the discovery of DNA structure became the subject of a bestseller, The Double Helix, published by Crick's former collaborator James D. Watson against Crick's wishes.1 Since Crick's own autobiography focused on his scientific life only, Olby, who had known Crick for almost half a century and benefited from his help with a previous book, took it upon himself to elaborate on the "missing" details.2
By Olby's own account, Crick's early years were filled with unexceptional achievements and do not help to clarify Crick's later rise to fame. Olby lets us conclude that Crick's nonconformist background and early atheism should not be discounted as contributing to his unusual, late-blooming career in science. Nor should one discount his courage in ignoring the then prevailing system of patronage. I agree with Olby's assessment that Crick's service as a civilian in the British Navy, working mainly on mine design during World War II and on intelligence after the war (1940-47), was a turning point in his life.
Olby examines all phases of Crick's long scientific life, dutifully covering his early uninspired years on studentships in a small, private laboratory of tissue culture, the Strangeways, and in the MRC (Medical Research Council) Unit for Molecular Biology, both in Cambridge (1947-53; chaps. 5, 6).
Crick's participation in the discovery of DNA structure (chaps. 7-10) and its role in his amazing journey to becoming a rising star of molecular biology, episodes that have been looked at by several authors (most notably H. F. Judson and S. Chadarevian), are considered in detail.3 In these chapters we learn about Crick's enunciation of the Central Dogma and his role, in close collaboration for many years with Sydney Brenner, in tackling both theoretical and experimental aspects of the genetic code (1953-77; chaps. 12-15).
We also learn about the events surrounding Crick's transition to a new career in a new discipline in a new country. After trying new topics in the 1970s, such as developmental genetics and chromatin structure, Crick suddenly gave up on the rapidly growing postclassical phase of molecular biology. Yet, Olby does not even [End Page 294] pause to try to explain such a major step, which did raise questions at the time. Instead, he suggests that the comfortable lifestyle offered to Crick by becoming a Resident Fellow at the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California (1977-2004, chaps. 18-19) coupled with new British taxation laws were sufficient to sever Crick's ties to MRC-LMB in Cambridge. Olby seems to miss Crick's misgivings about MRC's retirement policy, even though he documents how similar misgivings about intelligence policy led Crick to resign his position as a naval civilian analyst in 1947.
Since some topics included in Olby's biography first appeared in his The Path to the Double Helix (1974), which garnered a great deal of criticism from scientists and historians, one would have thought that three decades later Olby would reexamine some of his previous interpretations. For example, Olby noticed that B. Maddox's biography of Rosalind Franklin rekindled the public debate on why Crick and others who had input into the publication of his four coauthored papers on DNA structure in 1953-54 failed to accurately credit her.4 Having asked Crick if he had regrets that he failed to cite the source of the most crucial information that enabled him to make the last steps in solving DNA structure, despite numerous opportunities to do so over half a century, Olby accepted Crick's evasive reply that he was not in primary charge...