A story in the New York Times on Feb. 26 has kept me thinking about the lost art of writing letters by hand with pen and paper. In elementary school in the Philippines, I used to write my close friends during the summer, telling them about my vacation exploits with cousins. In high school, I corresponded for years with a pen pal from Germany. While in graduate school in England, I wrote home to my family almost every week. Before I got married, I wrote letters to my fiancé in Iran, now my husband, almost every day.
Before telephones and the Internet, letters were for me a lifeline to distant loved ones. I was a regular customer at post offices and a constant inspector of mailboxes. A new letter would be cause for much excitement. I would open it hurriedly, run my eyes up and down the pages to get a quick first impression of the sender’s state of mind. Then I would settle down and read carefully, prolonging as much as possible the vicarious connection through familiar handwriting. The quirks and imperfections made everything deeply personal and reassuring.
The Times story is about a letter Francis H. C. Crick wrote in 1953 to his son, Michael, who was 12 years old. Then a molecular biologist and biophysicist at the University of Cambridge, in England, Crick helped discover the double-helix structure of DNA. The discovery won the 1962 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for him, James D. Watson, and Maurice H. F. Wilkins.
“My Dear Michael, Jim Watson and I have probably made a most important discovery,” the letter begins. “We have built a model for the structure of des-oxy-ribose-nucleic-acid (read it carefully) called D.N.A. for short. You may remember that the genes of the chromosomes—which carry the hereditary factors—are made up of proteins and D.N.A. Our structure is very beautiful.” And Crick proceeds to describe the molecule’s structure, with sketches of a DNA chain and how two chains intertwine. “I can’t draw it very well, but it looks like this,” Crick says of his sketch, adding, “The model looks much nicer than this.”
Crick’s letter is dated March 19, 1953, about one month before his classic scientific paper with Watson came out in Nature. Crick explains the DNA code and mechanism of replication not only with masterful clarity but also in a manner that exudes love for the letter’s intended reader. According to the Times story, Michael was sick in boarding school when the letter arrived; thus he had lots of time to read it and to recite “des-oxy-ribose-nucleic-acid.” Crick concluded with “Lots of love, Daddy.”
Discovery of DNA’s structure was obviously a huge achievement. The letter suggests that telling his loved one was also obviously tremendously important for Crick. He clearly wanted his son to understand his findings and why they mattered, because his son mattered so much to him.
Sixty years later, the letter is offered for auction at Christie’s, which is estimating it will fetch between $1 million and $2 million. Michael and his wife, Barbara, according to the Times, will donate half of the proceeds to the Salk Institute, where Francis Crick continued to work after he reached mandatory retirement age in England.
I don’t know anyone who writes long letters by hand anymore. Even I have succumbed to using a word processor when writing to distant friends. The typographically perfect printed letters are no match for distinctive, if sometimes unreadable, penmanship on paper, created by ink emanating from a pen that’s connected to a hand and to a body of someone you wish were there with you in the first place.
The Times published photos of two pages from Crick’s letter, but online it re-created it in a document with Crick’s words typed and Crick’s sketches pasted. Although the document is easier to read, I wish the Times had shown photos of all pages of the original letter. Because it is from Crick’s handwriting, quirks and all, that the love flows.
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