Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Item of the month, July 2010: The name of the rose

Six years ago today, Francis Crick died of colon cancer in San Diego at the age of 88.

Most famous for his 1953 discovery (with James Watson) of the structure of DNA, Crick was also a keen rose cultivator, filling the garden of Wells Cottage, his summer retreat in Suffolk, with blooms. When the BBC wrote to him in the late 1980s to ask if he would participate in a proposed series ‘Portrait of the Twentieth Century’, Crick pithily replied ‘Nice of you to ask me but I think I’d rather water my roses’.

Sadly, there appears to be no ‘Francis Crick’ rose commemorating Crick’s scientific or horticultural passions. But a recently catalogued letter in Crick’s last set of papers poignantly uses a rose metaphor drawn from Umberto Eco to reflect on his last few weeks. Christof Koch, Crick’s longterm collaborator and friend, writes on 5 May 2004 to the neurologist Oliver Sacks:
‘Unfortunately, Francis’s health is deteriorating in an alarming manner. The various medications have made his mind drowsy and sluggish and it takes his brain hours to ‘warm up’ and be his usual decisive self. He is, of course, very much aware of his condition, which is deeply frustrating to him; but he bravely soldiers on. To me, Francis resembles… Sherlock Holmes, the embodiment of the perfect calculating machine, including that ‘all emotions… were abhorrent to his cold, precise, yet admirably balanced mind’. And so to experience Francis’s brilliant mind in this state of decay is sad, very sad… The closing words of The Name of the Rose come to mind: ‘Stat rosa pristina nomine, nomina nuda tenemus’ [‘The ancient rose continues to exist through its name, yet its name is all that remains to us’ (translation courtesy of Christof Koch)].

But despite Koch’s melancholy reflections on Crick’s waning health, Crick was still hard at work in hospital only hours before his death. Turning the pages of his draft of 28 July 2004 for the posthumously published paper ‘What is the Function of the Claustrum?' is enough to give even the most hardened researcher goose bumps.

This final ‘Claustrum’ draft marks the culmination of nearly 30 years of research by Crick on consciousness at the Salk Institute in San Diego. In works like The Astonishing Hypothesis (1994) he strove to place consciousness studies on a firm scientific footing, looking inside the human brain and studying the networks, connections, and firing patterns of neurons, which in his view gave rise to mental activity and consciousness.

Along the way Crick aimed to explode the myth, as he saw it, that human consciousness is linked to a soul, or a vital spark somehow separate from the ordinary biochemistry of the body. Crick may not have considered himself to have a perpetual soul, but the name and works of this hardy rose live on in perpetuity not only through his scientific legacy but also through his archive here at the Wellcome Library.

The final batch of Crick papers is due for release in autumn 2010, and the archive is currently being digitised for the library’s 'Modern Genetics and its Foundations Project'.

Koch letter, 5 May 2004: temporary ref. PP/CRI/Batch 3 file 2/6
'Claustrum' draft, 28 July 2004: temporary ref. PP/CRI/Batch 3 file 27/8

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