Odile Crick; Sketched Model of Husband's Discovery About DNA

By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 21, 2007

Odile Crick, 86, an artist who made the first widely published sketch of the double-helix structure of DNA, died July 5 at her home in La Jolla, Calif. She had cancer.

Her husband, Francis H.C. Crick, was one of three men credited with discovering the structure of the molecule. Mrs. Crick made it visible to the world in an April 1953 issue of the journal Nature.

Her graceful drawing of the double-helix structure of DNA with intertwined helical loops has become a symbol of the achievements of science and its aspirations to understand the secrets of life. The image represents the base pairs of nucleic acids, twisted around a center line to show the axis of the helix. Terrence J. Sejnowski, a neuroscientist at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, where Francis Crick later worked, said: "Mrs. Crick's drawing was an abstract representation of DNA, but it was accurate with regard to its shape and size of its spacing.

"The models you see now have all the atoms in them," Sejnowski said. "The one in Nature was the backbone and gave the bare outline. It may be the most famous [scientific] drawing of the 20th century, in that it defines modern biology."

Francis Crick, James Watson and Maurice Wilkins were credited with the first explanation of DNA and its structure, which has been revolutionary in understanding genetics and spurred the field of biotechnology. They shared the 1962 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine for their work on deoxyribonucleic acid.

Mrs. Crick was initially reluctant to abandon her pottery and paintings of Rubenesque nudes to take on the job of illustrating her husband's work.

She also was famously underwhelmed when her husband -- returning from his standing lunch with Watson at the Eagle pub in Cambridge, England -- excitedly told her for the first time about his DNA findings.

"You were always coming home and saying things like that," she said, "so naturally I thought nothing of it."

Odile Speed was born Aug. 11, 1920, in King's Lynn in Norfolk, England. Her mother was French, and her father was a British jeweler.

She studied art in London, Paris and Vienna but returned home when the Nazis advanced into Austria. She became an officer in the Women's Royal Naval Service, and her proficiency in German brought her work as a code-breaker and translator of captured documents.

She was stationed at the Admiralty defense complex in London when she first met Crick, a scientist four years her senior working on military research, particularly magnetic and acoustic mines.

She married Crick in 1949. After he became famous, the couple became known for their bohemian London parties at their home, the Golden Helix. Mrs. Crick often enlivened the occasions with her accordion.

"A typical party . . . organised on the slightest pretext, would fill all four floors of the Golden Helix with friends, music, punch bowls . . . and the scent of the odd joint in the air," Matt Ridley wrote in his 2006 biography of Francis Crick.

The Cricks settled in California in the late 1970s when Francis received a distinguished professorship at the Salk Institute and switched from his studies of DNA and the genetic code to trying to understand the brain.

When he served as president of the institute, Francis Crick displayed his wife's paintings of nudes around the workplace. He died in 2004.

Survivors include two daughters, Gabrielle Crick of London and Jacqueline Nichols of England; a stepson, Michael F.C. Crick of Bellevue, Wash., co-author of Crickler puzzles for The Washington Post; a brother; and four grandchildren.

Francis Crick once said that his wife stopped him from using Jacqueline when she was an infant in an experiment that involved the protein lysozyme, which is found in tears and saliva. "Odile would have none of it," he wrote in a memoir. "What! Use her precious baby for an experiment! I was sternly forbidden to attempt it."

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