Type ‘Francis Crick LSD’ into Google, and the result will be links to around 30,000 websites. Many of these websites make, or help support, the claim that Francis Crick (one of the two men responsible for discovering the double helix structure of DNA), was either under the influence of LSD at the time of his revelation, and/or used the drug to help with his thought processes during his research.
This narrative has been circulated on the internet, and to a lesser degree in print, to such an extent that it has become an article of faith among many in the global psychedelic community. The story is further repeated endlessly on mailing lists and forums, often used to bolster claims that LSD can provide breakthroughs in analytical and creative thinking.
It’s a great tale, one might even say a (t)ripping yarn, and one which goes a long way to legitimise the use and potential of LSD as a tool for creativity. And who better to have as the poster boy for LSD than a revered scientist and discoverer of the structure of DNA? But the fact is that the story simply isn’t true. It’s an urban legend. The product of churnalism. The simplest method to determine what level of truth – if any – underpins the claim is to examine its sources, and the timeline of the story.
Prior to Crick’s death in 2004 there had been no mention anywhere of him using LSD as part of the process of discovering the double helix. Until, just ten days after his death, that literary bastion of truth and moral fortitude the Daily Mail, published an article on 8 August 2004, headed ‘Crick was high on LSD when he discovered the secret of life!’[i]
Written by journalist Alun Rees, using information based on an interview conducted with a friend of the chemist Richard Kemp (one of the two chemists who manufactured LSD for the 1970s British LSD manufacturing and distribution conspiracy known as Operation Julie), the article is a mishmash of wishful thinking and idle speculation. It implies that Crick used LSD as part of his quest to discover the double helix structure of DNA and, furthermore, that Crick was involved in the genesis of Operation Julie.
If this story held even the slightest grain of truth, one would have thought the story would have been at least rumoured while Crick was still alive. But it wasn’t. Rees had obtained the post-mortem journalistic ‘scoop’ from one Garrod Harker, allegedly a friend of Richard Kemp.
According to Harker, Kemp told him that he met Francis Crick at Cambridge University in the late 1960s. Crick allegedly told Kemp that some Cambridge academics used LSD in tiny amounts as a thinking tool, to liberate them from preconceptions and to encourage their genius to wander freely in search of new scientific ideas. Crick also allegedly revealed to Kemp he had perceived the double-helix shape while high on LSD.
‘It was clear that Dick Kemp was highly impressed and probably bowled over by what Crick had told him. He told me that if a man like Crick, who had gone to the heart of human existence, had used LSD, then it was worth using. Crick was certainly Dick Kemp’s inspiration.’ claimed Harker in the Daily Mail interview. In the interests of journalistic accuracy, Rees then visited Crick at his home to confront the Nobel Prize winner with the story, only to be told by Crick – allegedly, of course – ‘Print a word of it and I’ll sue.’
Presumably Daily Mail readers were expected to believe that the story couldn’t be published before Crick’s death because of his threat of legal action, and that threat is used in the article to strongly imply the story was genuine. It’s a great journalistic technique; allege that a ‘celebrity’ has told you a secret but that this secret is so special that if you reveal it during their lifetime, they will take punitive legal action. It then makes sense to reveal the bombshell after their death, and use the alleged threat of legal action to explain why you kept quiet about it until now. It’s a wonderful piece of circular logic and almost guarantees your scoop will be published because, whether true or not, no legal action can be taken against journalist or newspaper because the subject is dead.
Whatever the case, once printed after Crick’s death, the story immediately leapt from the printed page onto the internet where it has spread and grown uncritically, becoming a kind of fact-currency for those wishing to justify their ‘scientific’ use of LSD.
One website[ii] refines the rumour even further to claim that, ‘Francis Crick who died in 2004 (88yrs old), admitted on his deathbed that he had been regularly taking small amounts of LSD when he arrived at the conclusion that DNA must exist as a double helix.’
Crick’s alleged disclosure to Harker wasn’t revealed while Crick was in the final process of dying, but by grafting the story onto a ‘deathbed confession’ value is automatically added because who on earth would make a story up if they only had a short time left to live? The ‘deathbed confession’ is a common motif in contemporary folklore (see, for instance, the numerous cases of ‘deathbed confessions’ in which former members of the armed forces have ‘revealed’ their knowledge about crashed UFOs and captured aliens, etc.), yet accounts of ‘deathbed confessions’, especially those making dramatic, history changing claims, are rarely, if ever, true[iii].
As an example of the extent to which Crick’s urban legend has embedded itself deeply into popular psychedelic culture, Graham Hancock, a well-known and respected fringe archaeologist and psychedelic explorer, repeats it in his book Supernatural[iv] and also elsewhere, such as this extract from an interview with The Daily Grail, ‘It’s not a widely known fact that Crick was under the influence of LSD when he discovered the double-helix structure of DNA and that this supreme achievement of scientific rationalism, for which he won the Nobel Prize, came to him in an altered, even mystical state of consciousness.’[v]
Note the use of the word ‘fact’. Hancock does himself a disservice by uncritically accepting the story of Crick and LSD without any attempt to prove the story, or refer to any provenance for it. No doubt many readers of the book accepted the story as ‘true’ and will repeat it in conversations and suchlike, spreading the legend further.
More recently the late Swedish historian of the psychedelic Patrick Lundborg has incorporated the rumour in his otherwise remarkable book, Psychedelia: An Ancient Culture, A Modern Way of Life. Accepting the enhanced version of the tale hook, line and sinker, he writes, ‘Crick, who testified on his death bed that LSD had helped him realise the double helix structure of DNA’[vi]… and so it goes on.
If writers as well respected as Hancock and Lundborg accept and believe the Crick DNA story, then their followers are likely to believe it too. The tale, already in folkloric terms a ‘friend of a friend’ story, is then further and uncritically spread, written manure for the viral growth of an unchecked story. Once started, despite evidence to the contrary being available, an urban legend is an unstoppable force.
The devoted reader at this point might say, well, yeah, but there’s got to be something in the story, surely? Maybe, a little[vii]. It is well evidenced that Crick supported the sensible use of drugs such as marijuana, as he was one of the famous signatories to the full page advertisement in The Times of 24 July 1967, which called the laws against marijuana ‘immoral in principle and unworkable in practice’[viii].
This ad was placed by the Society Of Mental Awareness (SOMA), a cannabis reform group that comprised several psychedelic luminaries and supporters, including the likes of R.D. Laing, Steve Abrams, and Francis Huxley. Indeed Crick was central to SOMA’s aims, in that he finessed their formula for THC tincture, then still legal under prescription.
There is no doubt of his commitment to mind expanding drugs, but does that mean we should accept as gospel truth that one, un-evidenced, account of him using LSD in the discovery of the double helix nature of DNA?
Crick also hinted at some, possibly experiential, knowledge of LSD in a 1998 interview with Jeffrey Mishlove[ix]:
CRICK: In the case of LSD, for example, you only need 150 micrograms to have all these funny experiences, you see. It’s minute. And that’s because they fit into special places, these little molecules, these drugs which you take. They fit into special places in these other molecules. They’ve been tailored to do that.
MISHLOVE: Do you have a sense of the process by which hallucinogenic drugs such as LSD, or psychedelic drugs, actually affect the brain? What is going on there?
CRICK: Well, I don’t have a detailed knowledge, no, I don’t, and I’m not sure that anybody else really knows. They have a rough idea.
MISHLOVE: We know that obviously there’s a chemical influence.
CRICK: Well, typically, different ones act in different ways. But a common thing is to see colours more vividly, for example, and often to see things move in a way when they’re not actually moving, and things of that sort. So they boost up in some way the activities of what you might call the colour parts of the brain and the moving parts of the brain and so on. But the government isn’t very keen on giving money for research on that sort of thing.
But Crick’s support for the legalisation of marijuana in the late 60s, and a working knowledge of LSD, is a big step from him actually utilising the psychedelic in his work with DNA, well over a decade earlier. Rees’ article, being based on a third hand source with no supporting documentary evidence, is unsound.
Additionally, the chronology necessary to enable Crick to have used LSD as an aid to discovering DNA is also fundamentally flawed.
LSD almost certainly (notwithstanding possible experimental military use, which began at around the same time) first arrived in Britain during November 1952, when Dr Ronald Sandison brought a quantity back from Sandoz Laboratories in Switzerland. Almost nothing was known about LSD in Britain at that time and for several years the drug was only available to a few psychotherapists and the Secret Intelligence Services (MI5 and MI6). Therefore, the chances of Crick getting hold of LSD during the time he was working on DNA (i.e. up to 1953) are slim.
However, Crick was known to have used LSD later in his life. His biographer, having spoken to his widow, ascertained that although Crick claimed not to know Richard Kemp and David Solomon, he did know Henry Todd, who introduced him to LSD in 1967. (All three were major players in the Operation Julie conspiracy, which was initially based in Cambridge, where Crick lived until 1977.)
Crick was apparently: ‘…fascinated by its effects – by how he became confused about what familiar objects were for, and by the way it seemed to alter the passage of time’[x]. So, Crick certainly did take LSD several times, but this was many years after his discovery of DNA’s double helix. No factual, or indeed anecdotal, evidence has yet appeared that indicates he was closely connected with the drug’s manufacture or distribution.
Steve Abrams, one of the aforementioned SOMA cannabis law reformers and a key mover and shaker in Britain’s counterculture, also railed against the story written by Rees for the Daily Mail. In an extract from a previously unpublished interview I conducted, in which Abrams discusses Richard Kemp’s role in the Operation Julie events, Abrams commented:
I would like to have got in touch with him [Kemp] about this ludicrous story about Francis and about discovering the structure of DNA while on an acid trip. It’s so insulting. The journalist who wrote this, he was a crime reporter on Operation Julie, and Stewart Tendler put me in touch with him and told me to be very careful talking to him because he’s a very nasty man and he was Crime Correspondent for the Daily Mail.
He actually turned out to be rather nice. And he admitted he didn’t know if the story was true, and it’s obvious nonsense. I didn’t believe that the guy called Gerrod Harker existed but he does exist, but the point is the way to find out was to check with Kemp. Kemp was supposedly told this story by Crick. now Kemp asked me about Crick so I’m pretty sure Kemp never met Crick.
Does this provide confusion or clarification? Of course the only person who really knows the truth is Crick, and he’s dead. Perhaps we could allow that Kemp did talk to Harker about Francis Crick’s later use of LSD and, as so often happens, the story became conflated with other rumours and a dash of journalistic imagination. Perhaps we must accept that whislt highly unlikely, it is still just about vaguely possible that Crick did use LSD during the discovery of the double helix structure of DNA. But all the available evidence argues against it and by mindlessly repeating the story as ‘fact’, the psychedelic community is guilty of perpetuating the rumour, undermining the genuine cases where psychedelics have been involved in making scientific breakthroughs. And there has been as least one major, undeniable case in which that has taken place, such as Carey Mullis’ claim (detailed in his book Dancing Naked in the Mind Field) that he used LSD in his understanding and development of the Polymerase Chain Reaction[xi].
All this might seem like a storm in a tea cup, stepping on the mellow of the psychedelic day dream. Who cares? Well, I do. The present psychedelic renaissance is afoot and going well. LSD tests with humans are now taking place again, and scientists are beginning to re-discover the enormous potential psychedelics have for creating and sustaining real change in individuals and thus societies. But the psychedelic renaissance has its critics and its enemies too, and if claims such as those made about Crick can be easily shot down in flames, what does that say about the credulity levels of those within the psychedelic community who would believe and promote them?
You can hopefully see what I am getting at. Yes, by all means let’s shout from the rooftops when well-known people come out about their positive use of psychedelics. But let’s also be prepared to confront rumour and falsehood, and denounce it as such to prevent it tainting the historical journey we are currently embarked on.
[iv] Hancock, Graham (2005). Supernatural. Century. 469-70
[vi] Lundborg, Patrick, (2012) Psychedelia, Lysergia 25-12, p. 51.
[vii] But don’t call me Shirley!
[x] Ridley, Matt, 2006. Francis Crick: Disoverer of the Genetic Code. Harper Collins, p. 156.
Cover image by Lucy Brown. Teaser image by Kevin Dooley, courtesy of Creative Commons license.