Thursday, 7 June 2012

My father and Francis Crick

When my father, John Shilston, was at school his closest friend was Francis Crick, who was to be awarded the Nobel Prize for his work in the discovery of DNA. A couple of years before my father died, he was contacted by Robert Olby, who was writing a biography of Crick, and was asked for any memories he might have. This is what my father wrote:-

“Francis Crick and I arrived at Mill Hill School in September 1930. Since we were the only Scholarship boys in our House (Ridgeway), we were thrown together, and remained close throughout our school careers. As scholars we went straight into the 5th form, two years ahead of most of our contemporaries, and when we reached the 6th form we studied the same subjects; maths, physics and chemistry, for Higher Certificate. We were in a small, exclusive set of about half a dozen, under an excellent maths teacher. Crick’s best subject in those days was physics, but I think it is fair to say that in those days he did not show much sign of his future eminence. He was a small, thin boy with round glasses, more extravert than me; his nickname was “Crackers”. We had similar tastes and interests, and we felt that intellectually we were much on a par (we were wrong!)
In our first year we had to do prep in the common room, where silence was enforced. Crick worked out a method of communicating by finger-tapping, based on the 5x5 alphabetical grid as used by prisoners. Once we reached the 6th form we shared a study for prep, though I don’t remember that either of us approached the work particularly diligently. Casual reading and listening to the radio were both strictly forbidden during prep, but we got round this. Radio in those days was an amateur occupation, and we built our own set. This was easily got into resonance, and by modulating this via a microphone we managed to broadcast some gramophone music to a nearby study. (When I say “we”, it was about 70% Crick: his physics was way above mine). Crick devised a switch that automatically turned the radio off when the door was opened by a patrolling prefect or master, and there was another switch under the desk, in case the master had the cunning idea of opening and closing the door whilst remaining inside.
Neither of us became a prefect: we were not good enough at team games, which was what gave you credibility; though Crick was very good at tennis: his father was a County player.
I left the school at Christmas 1933, to become an articled pupil training as a civil engineer, but Crick stayed on until next summer. I suspect that by his third year in the 6th form, Crick was becoming bored. (He told me that for the 1934 school photograph he achieved the legendary feat of appearing twice, running from one end of the assembled school to the other as the camera swung round) He then took up a place at University College, London University. At this stage his main interest was still physics; the biochemistry came later.
We remained in touch for the next few years, and I stayed a couple of times in the tiny flat he had at the bottom of Tottenham Court Road, where I met his girlfriend, who became his first wife. I also received some fairly mad letters from him: on one, the address ran, “Pray deliver with all due speed and efficiency to …… in that miserable hole, Keighley”, which was where I was living at the time. This must have amused the postman! I’m sorry to say that I lost these during one of my moves: they would have been worth keeping.
We lost touch during the war, when Crick was involved in scientific work for the government. In the early 1950s I came across a reference to him, and dropped him a line. He replied with the rather vague suggestion that we should get together again, but we never did. He was rather out of my league by this time, but I would still count him as the best friend of my youth.”

(“Francis Crick; Hunter of Life’s Secrets”, by Robert Olby, is published by Cold Spring Harbour Laboratory Press; New York)

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