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Notes from the Archives: The Man Beneath the Lab Coat 

Our Archivist Miss Forte has researched Dr Francis Crick and shared her findings with us. Keep on reading to find out about the man beneath the lab coat!

“As most will know, Science Week is currently underway – the second of two for those at Mill Hill! It’s impossible to discuss science at Mill Hill School without mentioning one of our most eminent alumni, Dr Francis Crick. As a former pupil and having passed the Francis Crick Centre (formerly UK Centre for Medical Research and Innovation) at its original site in Mill Hill, on the school run almost every day, I know the story of Crick the scientist well.  

The name ‘Crick’ has become synonymous with ‘Deoxyribonucleic acid’, or DNA to you and me. The incredible journey he undertook with his fellow researchers is well documented and the subject of many books and biographies. However, I believe that the story of the man behind the scientist is less familiar. Therefore, I set about resolving this. 

The first thing I unearthed about the Professor in the archives, was that Francis had been involved in the war effort during the Second World War. This was quite unexpected, as although I knew that Crick would have been of age and ability to join the war effort in some capacity, I had never seen mention of his service before.  

Nestled in “A List of Those Who Served”, a comprehensive record of Old Millhillians who served in WWI and WWII, is the innocuous mention of one “Francis Crick” on page 135. It states he worked in “scientific research” for the Naval “Admiralty”, between “1939-47”, in a “Research Lab” at “Teddington,” (London) in the “Mines Dept.” During his time working in the ‘Mines Department’, Francis researched and worked upon the design of magnetic and acoustic mine – seriously fragile and confidential work. Acoustic mines were triggered by the sound of passing ships. Detailed knowledge of ambient noise levels was needed to set the appropriate sound levels at which acoustic mines would be set off; to ensure that they would only explode when a ship was nearby. Magnetic mines were triggered quite differently; an approaching ship’s magnetic field would set them off. Again, this required detailed and careful research from Crick – this was delicate work that required a meticulous and shrewd scientific mind. 

But the war effort was clearly a family endeavour, as I discovered that his younger brother, Anthony, his uncle Arthur and his father, Harry – all alumni of Mill Hill – had served in WW2 as well. Anthony is listed directly above Francis, and he served in the Royal Army Medic Corps and was posted all around the world to different hospitals and stations. Uncle Arthur is listed above Anthony, and he served in the Kent Home Guard, an armed British citizen militia made up of volunteers, to keep the peace and order back home. Looking down to the page below Francis’ entry, listed right beneath him, is his father. Harry also served in the Home Guard but was based in Mill Hill. 

Going further back into the Crick family history also proves a delight to discover! Apparently, Francis comes from a line of scientists. In 1882, his amateur naturalist grandfather, Walter Drawbridge Crick, discovered a tiny mollusc attached to a water beetle in his local pond. He immediately wrote to the greatest biologist of his time, Charles Darwin. At the time, the ailing Darwin had proposed a theory that molluscs attach themselves to other creatures to move from pond to pond. So, he replied with a barrage of questions, and Walter later dutifully sent him the creature. The last paper Darwin ever published was about the cockles Walter had discovered, as it vindicated his theory – Darwin died 13 days after the publication. If you search the University of Cambridge’s Darwin Correspondence Project site and type in ‘Crick’, the letters addressed to and from W.D. Crick relate to one Walter Drawbridge Crick, Francis’ grandfather! Not only that, but Walter had two slugs named after him and also compiled and wrote a two-part survey of the Liassic foraminifera of Northamptonshire. 

Clearly the capability for scientific discovery was genetic in the Crick family! 

As I shifted my research into Francis’ time at Mill Hill, I learnt even more about this enigmatic man. Due to his hard work and diligence, Crick was awarded a scholarship to go to Mill Hill School in London to study Maths, Physics and Chemistry. He boarded in Ridgeway House between 1930-1934, still housed in the same building today. Overall, Francis’ time at Mill Hill was peaceful and enjoyable. He was remembered by past peers and masters as being an extrovert and somewhat eccentric – he was particularly noted for his insistence on wearing suede shoes!  

Francis’ fascination with natural history, the sciences and nothing else was strong even at an early age. His classmates were aware that the schoolboy had a slight obsession with talking about nothing but science! Even the Headmaster at the time, Maurice Jacks, took notice of the boy. His strongest memory of Crick as a schoolboy, was his peculiar, loud laugh – something that many people throughout his life would comment on. Francis joined the school tennis team, although he was nowhere near as keen as his later counterpart James Watson or his tennis-mad father Harry. During his time at Mill Hill, on Foundation Day, Friday, 7th July 1933, Crick was awarded the Walter Knox Prize for Chemistry, awarded to the best Upper Sixth Form Chemist. He went on to win the Knox prize two more times! The prize is still awarded every year at Mill Hill on Foundation Day. As he was prone to comment later in life, it was the teaching he received at Mill Hill that truly inspired him and his successes.   

Clearly there was more to Dr Francis Crick then his scientific work. His wartime works undoubtedly saved thousands of lives, and his steadfast fashion sense remained strong throughout his life. Crick rose to become of the most pre-eminent scientific minds of our time – securing a Noble prize for his work, as well as his legacy for Mill Hill.”

The two group photos above are from when Crick and his team received their Nobel Prize in 1962, and the letter is from Crick when a plaque dedicated to him was unveiled at the school in 2000.