In this letter Crick pays tribute to the crystallographer and political activist J. Desmond Bernal, called Sage by his friends
because of his reputation as a polymath. In the early 1930s Bernal had pioneered the use of X-ray diffraction techniques
in elucidating the structure of biologically significant macromolecules such as proteins, at the time an undertaking of almost
insurmountable complexity. The crystallographers and Nobel Laureates Max Perutz and Dorothy Hodgkin, mentioned by Crick,
studied with Bernal at Cambridge University in the 1930s and were his most famous disciples. Rosalind Franklin found an enthusiastic
supporter in Bernal, whose laboratory at Birkbeck College she joined in 1953. Crick himself had applied for a research position
there in 1947, but was rebuffed by Bernal's secretary with the words, "Do you realize that people from all over the
world want to come to work with the professor? Why do you think he would take you on?"
Crick's reference to "unkind things" he said about protein crystallography at an early age in his career was to
a research seminar he had given at the Cavendish Laboratory in 1950, when Crick was a doctoral student under Perutz. There,
in the presence of the Cavendish professor, Sir William Bragg, Crick brashly dismissed several of the methods commonly used
by protein crystallographers, including Patterson functions, as unlikely to yield a three-dimensional picture of the electron
density of a protein crystal, without which the location of the thousands of atoms in the crystal could not be known. The
only method of which Crick approved was the so-called isomorphic replacement method, which came to dominate the field. Bragg
did not view Crick's criticism kindly, and accused him of "rocking the boat."
The article Crick sent along with his letter was "The Origin of the Genetic Code," published in the Journal of Molecular
Biology, vol. 38 (1968), pp. 367-79.
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1969-01-20 (January 20, 1969)
Bernal, John Desmond
Original Repository: Wellcome Library for the History and Understanding of Medicine. Francis Harry Compton Crick Papers
I enclose a copy of Leslie Orgel's paper on the Evolution of the Genetic Apparatus and one of my own on The Origin of
the Genetic Code. I think Orgel's paper should logically be read before mine, although they were published in the reversed
sequence, though in the same journal. I hope you will find them interesting.
I hope the dinner on the 30th goes off well. In this lab we have always regarded you as the scientific father of our subject.
If it was not for your imagination in thinking about what seemed to be impossibly difficult problems, and the encouragement
that you gave to Max and Dorothy and the others, people like myself would never have had the opportunity to work in molecular
biology, and would have been too timid to tackle the really interesting questions. I shall always remember the stimulus you
gave us when you came to visit the Cavendish when I was still a research student and particularly appreciate your support
when I was having to, at that early stage, say unkind thing about protein crystallography. It is wonderful to see how the
subject has developed since then, both on the structural side and on the biochemical side, but without the early work of people
like yourself it would never have got off the ground.