Michael Ashburner on Francis Crick
  Michael Ashburner     Biography    
Recorded: 03 Jul 2003

I think it’s the first time I met Jim. I’m not sure. I may have met him in Cambridge because by 1970 I knew Francis quite well. I mean when I was an undergraduate Francis was very famous.

Francis, he didn’t lecture. Sydney [Brenner] lectured but Francis didn’t [lecture] to students. I saw a bit of Francis because I worked with Sydney Brenner in 1963 [or] 1964. I can’t remember. I’ll talk about that later. I used to see Francis, but I didn’t really know him very well.

My first contact with Francis was actually much earlier. It was in 1962, and the winter of 1963. 1963 was a very, very bad winter in Cambridge. It was kind of a hundred year cold. Francesca and I were living in a small attic apartment with no heating. We couldn’t get fuel. We couldn’t get kerosene. We were about to freeze to death. But we knew a girl called Liz Chelito, who was living in the Crick’s house as their au pair. In December of ‘62, Francis and Odile went to Stockholm to get the Nobel Prize and after that I think they went to the Mediterranean. We moved in the Crick’s house in Portugal Place in Cambridge and lived there for about three weeks with Liz. Francis’s son, Michael, I think was there, the older son, well there’s only one son who lived in America in Seattle, a son by the first marriage.

I also got to know Francis quite well, not only scientifically but socially because there was a man who lived just outside Cambridge called John Gayer-Anderson, who was a potter. His father had been a very famous, well, a fairly famous Egyptologist. He lived in Cairo. If you go to the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge most of the mummies and the Egyptian artifacts were collected by John’s father.

So, John had a private income. He lived in a big house in the village called Waterbeach outside Cambridge. He and Francis were close friends for a long time. There’s a whole social circle around that. Francis and John had one very strong bond. They were both very fond of women, talking to women and other things with women. They jointly owned a collection of “B” movies, which were 8mm films. John used to have, not every year, but often used to have an erotic pottery show. So he’d get teapots where the spout of the teapot was a penis and that sort of thing.

He liked to—and both Francis did as well. They both liked to engineer situations between couples, triples, and quadruples. I mean I probably shouldn’t go much further than this.

John died about ten years, no, ten or twelve years ago. He was quite old. He was about 70 when he died. During that period he got a new French wife who is still alive and they have a child.

I used to see Francis quite a lot socially. Cambridge was much more social, I think, in the ‘70s than it is now. I mean lots of parties. I tried very hard in the early ‘70s to get Francis to hire me at the LMB [the Laboratory of Molecular Biology], but he wouldn’t, so I stayed in genetics.

Michael Ashburner, a leader in Drosophila Genetics and bioinformatics, received his B.A. (1964), M.A. (1968), Ph.D. (1968) and Sc.D. (1978) from the University of Cambridge, where he is currently professor of Biology in the Department of Genetics and a Professional Fellow of Churchill College.

He has been the joint head of European Bioinformatics Institute (EBI), of the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) and was co-founder of Flybase, the primary online database for Drosophila genetics and molecular biology, the Gene Ontology Consortium, an effort to coordinate biological databases through a defined taxonomy of gene function, and the Crete Meetings, a bi-annual event focusing on the developmental and molecular biology of Drosophila melanogaster.

Among many honors, he is the recipient of the G.J. Mendel Medal (Czech Republic 1998) and the George W. Beadle Medal (Genetics Society of America 1999).

Michael Ashburner