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Read Francis Crick’s $6 Million Letter to Son Describing DNA

In 1953, English biologist Francis Crick wrote a letter to his 12-year-old son Michael, describing a discovery he and his colleague had recently made.

In the letter, Crick sketches what is now perhaps one of the most famous scientific diagrams in world—the structure of DNA

Michael Crick put that letter up for auction on April 10 with Christie’s in New York City. It sold for $5.3 million to an anonymous buyer who bid over the phone, according to news reports. With additional fees, the total came to just over $6 million.

Half the proceeds will go to the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in San Diego, California, where Francis Crick, who died in 2008, was a professor.

It beat out a letter written by Abraham Lincoln, that sold in 2008 for $3.4 million, including fees, according to U.K. paper The Guardian.

Here is the handwritten letter in its entirety (transcript courtesy Christie’s).

Page 1. Photograph courtesy Christie's
Page 1. Photograph courtesy Christie’s

 

19 Portugal Place Cambridge
19 March ’53

My Dear Michael,

Jim Watson and I have probably made a most important discovery. We have built a model for the structure of de-oxy-ribose-nucleic-acid (read it carefully) called D.N.A. for short. You may remember that the genes of the chromosomes — which carry the hereditary factors — are made up of protein and D.N.A.

Our structure is very beautiful. D.N.A. can be thought of roughly as a very long chain with flat bits sticking out. The flat bits are called the “bases”. The formula is rather like this.

Page 2. Photograph courtesy Christie's
Page 2. Photograph courtesy Christie’s

 

Now we have two of these chains winding round each other — each one is a helix — and the chain, made up of sugar and phosphorus, is on the outside, and the bases are all on the inside. I can’t draw it very well, but it looks like this

Page 3. Photograph courtesy Christie's
Page 3. Photograph courtesy Christie’s

 

The model looks much nicer than this.

Now the exciting thing is that while these are 4 different bases, we find we can only put certain pairs of them together. Thee bases have names. They are Adenine, Guanine, Thymine & Cytosine. I will call them A, G, T and C. Now we find that the pairs we can make — which have one base from one chain joined to one base from another — are

only A with T and G with C.

Page 4. Photograph courtesy Christie's
Page 4. Photograph courtesy Christie’s

 

Now on one chain, as far as we can see, one can have the bases in any order, but if their order is fixed, then the order on the other chain is also fixed. For example, suppose the first chain goes [points to string of letters on left], then the second must go [points to string of letters on right].

Page 5. Photograph courtesy Christie's
Page 5. Photograph courtesy Christie’s

 

It is like a code. If you are given one set of letters you can write down the others.

Now we believe that the D.N.A. is a code. That is, the order of the bases (the letters) makes one gene different from another gene (just as one page of print is different from another). You can now see how Nature makes copies of the genes. Because if the two chains unwind into two separate chains, and if each chain then makes another chain come together on it, then because A always goes with T, and G with C, we shall get two copies where we had one before. For example

Page 6. Photograph courtesy Christie's
Page 6. Photograph courtesy Christie’s

 

Page 7. Photograph courtesy Christie's
Page 7. Photograph courtesy Christie’s

 

In other words we think we have found the basic copying mechanism by which life comes from life. The beauty of our model is that the shape of it is such that only these pairs can go together, though they could pair up in other ways if they were floating about freely. You can understand that we are very excited. We have to have a letter off to Nature in a day or so. Read this carefully so that you understand it. When you come home we will show you the model.

Lots of love, Daddy

Comments

  1. Jitu Shah
    Bristol UK
    June 28, 2013, 9:49 am

    Francis Crick was great. His explanation to his son exhibits beautiful simplicity. I would also like to register my tribute to his colleague Rosemary Franklin.
    SHE WAS NOT NOMINATED BY ANY ONE

    Deoxyribonucleic acid;
    Mouthful and awkward name to say;
    The basis of the book of life:
    Simpler to refer to it as DNA.

    A complex polymer;
    Constituted of molecules of Sugar;
    Phosphate, and four nitrogenous bases.
    A – Adenine, T – Thymine,
    G – Gaunine and C – Cytocin;
    Always bonding in;
    The backbone of sugar and phosphate;
    Forming a sequence of specific pairs;
    G-C, T-A, C-G, A-T and T-A,
    So on and on and on;
    Locking in to the double helix structure;
    Forming the code of life together;
    Passing it down from one generation to the other,

    The thoughts for the secret of life;
    Originated from Erwin Schrödinger’s mind.
    Physics can solve riddles in biological ‘trade’;
    He most emphatically said.

    Two of the Nobel laureates were physicists;
    Wilkins was very astute;
    He had DNA crystals to diffract;
    To apply X-ray crystallography, to investigate.
    Crick knew what diffraction patterns helices make;
    Watson, he was a thorough bred zoologist;
    He figured out how the bases should pair;
    Along, the backbone to set.

    Alas! One must not forget;
    The famous x-ray “photograph 51”;
    Taken by one Rosalind Franklin;
    Provided the clear proof;
    The double helix was the truth;
    It’s not in dispute.
    For her no reward; she died in 1958.
    Now we know from the Nobel archives;
    She was not nominated by any one!!!
    What a pitiful non-act!!!

    p.s I submitted this before and tried to alter it. As a result, it was removed. I hope this gets listed.

  2. Jitu Shah
    Bristol UK
    June 28, 2013, 7:24 am

    Reading remarks of “SINE” on Rosemary Franklin – I thought I ought to reproduce a poem dedicated to Rosemary Franklin. Please every one enjoy. A friend already suggested that I should send it to the Nobel Foundation!

    SHE WAS NOMINATED BY NO ONE!!!
    Deoxyribonucleic acid;
    Mouthful and awkward name to say;
    The basis of the book of life:
    Simpler to refer to it as DNA.
    A complex polymer;
    Constituted of molecules of Sugar;
    Phosphate, and four nitrogenous bases.
    A – Adenine, T – Thymine,
    G – Gaunine and C – Cytocin;
    Always bonding in;
    The backbone of sugar and phosphate;
    Forming a sequence of specific pairs;
    G-C, T-A, C-G, A-T and T-A,
    So on and on and on;
    Locking in to the double helix structure;
    Forming the code of life together;
    Passing it down from one generation to the other,
    The thoughts for the secret of life;
    Originated from Erwin Schrödinger’s’ mind.
    Physics can solve riddles in biological ‘trade’;
    He most emphatically said.
    Two of the Nobel laureates were physicists;
    Wilkins was very astute;
    He had DNA crystals to diffract;
    To apply X-ray crystallography, to investigate.
    Crick knew what diffraction patterns helices make;
    Watson, he was a thorough bred zoologist;
    He figured out how the bases should pair;
    Along, the backbone to set.
    Alas! One must not forget;
    The famous x-ray “photograph 51”;
    Taken by one Rosalind Franklin;
    Provided the clear proof;
    The double helix was the truth;
    It’s not in dispute.
    For her no reward; she died in 1958.
    Now we know from the Nobel archives;
    She was not nominated by any one!!!
    What a pitiful non-act!!!
    Jitu Shah
    24th May 2009

  3. Jonathan
    Jeddah, Saudi Arabia
    May 2, 2013, 4:50 pm
  4. Paulette
    East Haven, CT
    April 27, 2013, 12:29 pm

    I found this letter very interesting, indeed. When my son was a mere 3yr old, I tried explaining to him why he couldn’t have a doughnut every day. He was a sponge, & my explanation led me to a very embarrassing moment. The woman at the check-out was obese, & when he looked up at me and asked, her have too many calories? I realized children will listen & learn if you give them a personal note to stick to. So this letter just makes me realize how excited he was as a father, & how much he wanted to relay to his son in a manner a 12yr old could understand. I think it’s beautiful, but I’m NOT impressed that Michael would sell it!
    Do you need the money? Wouldn’t it have been much better to be put in a museum, for other children to see, if not yours and the future children to come in your own family?
    I would have much rather given the lesson to family, than to hand down the money. Such a personal letter cannot be replaced with the almighty $$. What a shame, but at least I got to read it… Thank you to Christie’s for posting it.

  5. Matokgo Makutoane
    Johannesburg, South Africa
    April 26, 2013, 12:22 pm

    Fabuluos story! Still believe Franklin deserved a mention in the letter for her contribution. That’s huge money!

  6. Marlos Da Matta Agostini
    Brasilia . Brasil
    April 26, 2013, 12:11 pm

    Wonderful letter .

  7. dr prakash kumar jain
    bangalore,india
    April 26, 2013, 9:24 am

    really amazing,it shows how caring and loving father he was.

  8. kate dwyer
    Chester
    April 26, 2013, 8:26 am

    Wonderful! Yes Rosalind Franklin should be included in the roll call of those who discovered DNA, she died very young from cancer, likely overexposure to radiation. Without her photos Crick would have not have been able to see the helix structure (spiral) of DNA.

  9. Guida Muala
    Johannesburg South Africa
    April 26, 2013, 5:07 am

    I read this because of my curiousity to see how great minded people wrote personal letters lol. Expected this letter to be written in a form of an article or something, but was humbled to see how human he was. Such a loving father who felt the need to educate his own child before educating the world…you can be the best of both i guess..in this case, a loving father and a brilliant scientist.

  10. Aman Siraj
    Kota,India
    April 26, 2013, 2:37 am

    Wow,great.
    I have studied structure of DNA so many times & every time i go through it, i feel so fascinated of how every thing works together inside the cell. Specially the speed & accuracy of the whole thing.
    At molecular level, life is lightening fast indeed.
    A priceless letter to read.
    And yes Franklin should have got the due credit.

  11. Castigo Samboco
    Mozambique
    April 26, 2013, 1:38 am

    AMAZING!

  12. Claudio Barrientos
    Chile
    April 26, 2013, 12:57 am

    Beautiful.

  13. Sine
    SF
    April 26, 2013, 12:47 am

    Everyone should know Watson and Crick famously ripped off Rosalind Franklin’s discovery of the structure of DNA.

    Franklin is best known for her work on the X-ray diffraction images of DNA which led to the discovery of the DNA double helix. Her data, according to Francis Crick, were “the data we actually used”[3] to formulate Crick and Watson’s 1953 hypothesis regarding the structure of DNA.[4] Franklin’s images of X-ray diffraction confirming the helical structure of DNA were shown to Watson without her approval or knowledge. Though this image and her accurate interpretation of the data provided valuable insight into the DNA structure, Franklin’s scientific contributions to the discovery of the double helix are often overlooked.[5] Unpublished drafts of her papers (written just as she was arranging to leave King’s College London) show that she had independently determined the overall B-form of the DNA helix and the location of the phosphate groups on the outside of the structure. Moreover, Franklin personally told Crick and Watson that the backbones had to be on the outside, which was crucial since before this both they and Linus Pauling had independently generated non-illuminating models with the chains inside and the bases pointing outwards.[6] However, her work was published third, in the series of three DNA Nature articles, led by the paper of Watson and Crick which only hinted at her contribution to their hypothesis.[7]

  14. Michael Winter
    Durban, KwaZulu Natal Republic of South Africa
    April 25, 2013, 11:10 am

    Thank you National Geographic for making this scientific information available to us. It is fantastic and amazing.

  15. Ken Hampshire
    April 19, 2013, 11:38 am

    How sad that the days of pure research are gone. Banting, Macleod, and Best gave their rights on the discovery of insulin to the University of Toronto. Banting even split his Nobel Prize money with Best even though Best was not named on the prize.

    We would never see that kind of generosity today. Everything is “for profit.” How sad.

  16. Shirley Creazzo
    Brewster, NY
    April 19, 2013, 11:02 am

    How interesting to find another dimension to the man who helped us understand this great secret of life. How wonderful that he so wanted his son to understand the value of his work. How nice that he was so enamored of the work he was doing, which no doubt contirbuted to the success of the project.

  17. Sumodan P K
    Calicut, Kerala, India
    April 16, 2013, 1:41 pm

    Wonderful letter. I have seen their original letter in Nature. But this letter, I have never heard of it. In fact, Crick was a physicist turned biologist!

  18. Babu G. Ranganathan
    Pennsylvania
    April 16, 2013, 11:37 am

    HOW DO EGG YOLKS BECOME CHICKENS? (Internet Article) When you divide a cake, the parts are smaller than the original cake and the cake never gets bigger. When we were a single cell and that cell divided, the new cells were the same size as the original cell and we got bigger. New material had to come from somewhere. That new material came from food. The sequence in our DNA directed our mother’s food, we received in the womb, to become new cells forming all the tissues and organs of our body. Understand how DNA works. Read my Internet article: HOW DO EGG YOLKS BECOME CHICKENS? Just google the title to access the article.

    This article explains how DNA works and will give you a good understanding of DNA, as well as cloning and genetic engineering.

    Visit my newest Internet site: THE SCIENCE SUPPORTING CREATION

    Babu G. Ranganathan
    (B.A. Bible/Biology)

  19. Tom Curran
    April 12, 2013, 9:43 pm

    OMG this is the secret of life explained! I knew Francis and I know Jim. This letter is totally priceless.

  20. Biochemistry major
    Australia
    April 12, 2013, 7:01 am

    ‘Lots of love, Daddy’
    AWWW!!!
    Respect for this man is up by one thousand percent. And what a killer explanatory breakdown of his groundbreaking work. I would have loved to have read this in high-school.

    Guy’s a superhero.

  21. Biochemistry major
    Australia
    April 12, 2013, 6:57 am

    ‘Lots of love, Daddy’
    AWWW!!!
    Respect for this man is up by one thousand percent. And what a killer explanation of his groundbreaking work. I would have like to have read this in high-school.

    Guy’s a superhero.

  22. Hafiz Ahmad
    Karachi
    April 12, 2013, 3:56 am

    Power of Knowledge is Marvelous, Nothing can Beat it except More Knowledge.

  23. Stacey Offen
    palmyra, ny
    April 11, 2013, 11:05 pm

    That was so beautiful to read! Francis did a wonderful job describing D.N.A. It was quite easy to understand to, easier than college biology. Michael is blessed to have kept that letter all this time from his father.

  24. becca
    floriduh
    April 11, 2013, 6:02 pm

    Amazing. Still don’t like your programming, esp. that Preppers show, but this piece was exceptional.

  25. Alvin Huego
    Ohio
    April 11, 2013, 5:39 pm

    Poser, Cricket and his partner used data from another scientist without giving her credit. I feel sorry for the buyer, because they bought junk. He stole the pictures to develope the model he talks about and gets credit for those pictures when some women spent years getting them and then being played.

  26. Dave
    seattle
    April 11, 2013, 5:27 pm

    Wonderful; now can we please give at least a small mention of the person who actually made this possible: Rosalind Franklin.
    Without her skill as a biophysicist and X-ray crystallographer, Watson and Crick would not have had the information they needed to expound on DNA, and would probably be forgotten by now. Read about Rosalind here:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rosalind_Franklin