Press release

Francis Crick Digital Archive

A Pencil drawn sketch showing Francis Crick’s first impressions of the famous DNA double helix is amongst a unique collection of materials from his personal archive which have been digitised and made available to view over the internet.

The rough sketch made on a scrap of A4 paper, gives a unique insight into one of the most significant achievements of the 20th century – the discovery of the structure of DNA. Crick, alongside his colleague Dr James Watson, identified the double helix shape of DNA in 1953 and, as is famously quoted, celebrated by going to a local pub in Cambridgeshire and telling the regulars that they “had found the secret of life.”

This discovery confirmed DNA as the molecule that passes genetic information from one generation to the next and as such is fundamental to developmental biology and evolution. The finding brought a new era of scientific progress, which has revolutionised medical and forensic science and created new ethical and social questions, many of which are being discussed today, such as the use of stem cells.

The sketch is part of 350 text documents and images from Crick’s collection that can now be viewed or downloaded online. Included in this resource are his original research papers on DNA and genetic codes, dating from 1948 to the 1980’s. The project to digitalise more documents from the collection – which consists of over 11,000 items – is currently being planned.

In addition to the scientific papers, Crick’s archive also contains more personal documents, including:

letters from school children asking for advice on how to “be a good scientist”, a photograph of a wall showing the graffiti “CRICK FOR GOD” – ironic given he was famously an atheist, a letter asking him and Watson to cure multiple sclerosis, suggesting they could look at AIDS and cancer while they were at it, a tick box postcard response which was prepared because of the number of similar letters he received and the telegram sent to him announcing he had won the Nobel Prize in 1962.

The Wellcome Trust and the United States National Library of Medicine have been working together on the digitisation project over the past year. The website is freely available for all to view and is designed to act as a point of reference for anyone with an interest in genetics and DNA, but also as a guide which will help more in-depth research.

Crick himself emphasized the value of this project when speaking in 2001, he said:

“The Wellcome Trust’s principle of free access to information will apply to my papers. The world’s scientists and medical historians can’t all make it over to my office in the States but they will soon all have unlimited access to my archives at the Wellcome Library.”

Helen Wakely, archivist at the Wellcome Library, said:

“Crick’s work began a new era of scientific progress. That we’ve been able to make his papers available for anyone, anywhere to view is great news for scientists and science pupils around the world. His groundbreaking research is now a fully accessible resource which, we’re sure, will continue to inspire generations to come.”

The Wellcome Trust and the Heritage Lottery Fund bought the Crick papers in 2001 when they faced becoming part of a private collection in the US. Since then they have been housed and accessible to the public in the Wellcome Library. The process of digitisation ensures their longevity and makes them accessible to a much larger audience.

Francis Crick, one of the most celebrated scientists of the last century, died in July 2004 aged 88.