Francis Crick's controversial archive on first public display

Material from the controversial archive of Francis Crick goes on display for the first time as part of a new exhibition celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the discovery of the structure of DNA at the Wellcome Trust.

The archive, comprising 120 boxes, which has been transferred from La Jolla in the United States, corresponds to a shipment of around 130 cubic feet of material.[1]

The invaluable primary source material contained within the Crick archive has provided the visual resource for some of the ten contemporary artists in the exhibition. Each artist has created site-specific works which are displayed throughout the Wellcome Building and TwoTen Gallery and for which the Crick archive forms a focal point.

The Crick display focuses on what Crick has termed "the classical period" of molecular biology, the thirteen-year period from 1953 when the structure of DNA was identified to 1966 when the genetic code was finally unravelled in its entirety.

Crick's archive was purchased in late 2001 by the Wellcome Trust and the Heritage Lottery Fund. It was the biggest single acquisition the Wellcome Trust had ever made. The purchase was itself contentious as the archive was prevented from falling into the hands of a private collector and secured for public display. This month the controversy of scientific papers entering private hands again reared its head when a private Californian archive containing papers on molecular biology, was threatened with being split up to be sold by auction in New York.

Some of the controversial Crick material on display includes documents relating to the disputes that surround what is widely hailed as the major scientific discovery of the 20th Century. The exhibition sheds light on the role of Rosalind Franklin in particular and includes, for example, a copy of the now famous letter from Franklin's colleague Maurice Wilkins to Crick. "Our dark lady leaves us...," Wilkins wrote, referring conspiratorially to her transfer from King's College to Birkbeck College shortly before the publication of the first Watson and Crick paper in 'Nature'.

Other correspondence on display also includes a series of illuminating letters from Crick, Wilkins and others to James Watson, objecting to the publication of his book, 'The Double Helix'. Watson's autobiographical account caused a fuss even before it was published (1968). Crick and Wilkins were strongly against publication. Crick considered that his privacy had been violated and that the book was nothing more than unscientific gossip. The book broke new ground in scientific memoir style, with sharply-drawn characters, intrigue and excitement.

From the Crick archive, it emerges that Crick and Wilkins seriously considered taking legal action against Harvard University Press (Watson's first choice of publisher). In the book, Watson made a number of cutting remarks about Franklin, amongst them: "The thought could not be avoided that the best home for a feminist was in another person's lab." Correspondence in the archive shows that Harvard University Press got cold feet about publishing the book. The Crick papers at the Wellcome Library include a file of pre-publication correspondence - much of which will be on display - between the 'leading characters' of the book: Crick, Watson, Wilkins, Linus Pauling and Sir Lawrence Bragg.

Francis Crick has long been known to hold controversial views on eugenics. In a recent interview with David Pearson, Head of the Wellcome Library for the History and Understanding of Medicine, which forms part of the exhibition, Crick remarked: "In the long run, it is unavoidable that society will begin to worry about the character of the next generation... It is not a subject at the moment which we can tackle easily because people have so many religious beliefs and until we have a more uniform view of ourselves I think it would be risky to try and do anything in the way of eugenics... I would be astonished if, in the next 100 or 200 years, society did not come round to the view that they would have to try to improve the next generation in some extent or one way or another."

Mr David Pearson said: "The archive is part of the UK's scientific heritage and it will be wonderful to see items from the collection on display to the public, as it should be. The timing, coinciding with the anniversary of what is probably one of the most significant discoveries our time, couldn't be more appropriate."

Chris Beckett, Archivist, Crick Papers said: "This first public display represents the first fruits of an exercise to catalogue and make Crick's archive available to the public. Although, cataloguing will not be completed until later in 2003, the display offers an early glimpse of some of the treasures that the collection contains."

Around half of the 120 boxes of material relates to Crick's time at Cambridge (up to 1976), and has and been catalogued and chronologically arranged. The other half of the material now in the UK relates to Crick's time at the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California, where he has conducted theoretical neurological research into consciousness and the visual system of the brain.

The material in the exhibition is arranged chronologically, and provides a narrative for the discovery of the structure of DNA through documentation in the Crick archive.

Exhibits include:
Watson, 'Honest Jim' (1966) and 'The Double Helix' (1968)
The publication of Watson's inimitable account of the discovery of the structure of DNA attracted considerable attention. Crick's papers include all earlier drafts, viz. 'Base Pairs' (1966), 'Honest Jim' (1966) and 'Honest Jim' (1967). Many considered that Watson's portrayal of Rosalind Franklin, who died of cancer in 1958, at the age of 37, was objectionable. Although Watson added to the text an Epilogue (seen in exhibit 30, letter from Aaron Klug, 9 December 1966) in which Franklin's contribution was praised, it is evident that the infamous closing sentence of Chapter 2 was not arrived at without some revision.

Watson, 'The Double Helix': pre-publication correspondence (1966-67)
Publication of Watson's book was strongly objected to by Crick and Wilkins. Many aspects of the book caused concern. Considerable pressure was applied (including the threat of a legal challenge) on Watson's first choice of publisher, Harvard University Press, which eventually declined to publish. The collection contains a small selection of letters from Crick, Wilkins, Watson, Aaron Klug, Linus Pauling and Sir Lawrence Bragg.

Other documents, for which images are also available, include:

  • a pencil sketch by Francis Crick of the proposed double helical structure of DNA (1953)
  • telegram to Crick announcing he had won the Nobel Prize (1962).

'Four Plus: Writing DNA'
April - August 2003
Location: Wellcome Library and Information Services
The Wellcome Trust, 183 Euston Road, London NW1
Nearest tubes: Euston, Euston Square and Warren Street