Wednesday, 17 July 2013

Finding the ‘secret of life’ – scientific
and theological – in a Cambridge pub

The sign of The Eagle in Bene’t Street – close to Saint Bene’t’s Church and Corpus Christi College (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Patrick Comerford

This year, Cambridge is celebrating the sixtieth anniversary of the discovery of the “secret of life.”

Sixty years ago, on 28 February 1953, Francis Crick interrupted the patrons in the Eagle on Bene’t Street to announce that he and James Watson had “discovered the secret of life.”

At the time, the Eagle was a popular lunchtime venue for people working in Cambridge University’s Cavendish Laboratory at its old site nearby in Free School Lane.

Last night [16 July 2013], a small group of us who are taking part in the IOCS Summer School in Cambridge, adjourned to the Eagle, although I cannot imagine that there was one scientist among us.

The emblem of Corpus Christ College in a window in the Eagle (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

The Eagle, which is one of the largest best-known pubs in Cambridge, is on the north side of Bene’t Street, across the street from Saint Bene’t’s Church. Although the pub is managed by Greene King, the site is owned by Corpus Christi College, and the heraldic emblem of the college can be seen in the glass in the windows of the Eagle.

This is one the oldest pubs in Cambridge, and claims to date back to the 14th century. The site was bequeathed to Corpus Christi College in 1525. However, the first record I can find is in 1667, when it was known as ‘The Eagle and Child.’

It seems that this was originally a coaching inn. The Rutland Club, founded in 1728 by John Mortlock, was based in the Eagle in the 18th century.

The corner in the Eagle where James Watson and Francis Crick announced their discovery sixty years ago (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

When Cambridge University’s Cavendish Laboratory was still at its old site nearby in Free School Lane, the Eagle was a popular place for lunch for the laboratory staff.

And so, this became the place where Francis Crick interrupted the patrons at lunchtime on 28 February 1953 to announce that he and James Watson had “discovered the secret of life” after they had come up with their proposal for the structure of DNA or, if you can pronounce or spell it, Deoxyribonucleic Acid.

The plaque unveiled by James Watson ten years ago (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

James Watson recalls the story in his The Double Helix. He says Crick “winged into the Eagle” and somewhat prematurely told “everyone within hearing distance that we had discovered the meaning of life.” Crick, in his own account in What Mad Pursuit (1988), says he has no recollection of this. Crick and Watson shared the Nobel Prize with Maurice Wilkins in 1962 – the collaborative role of Rosalind Franklin went unacknowledged for a long time.

The story of the lunchtime announcement sixty years ago is commemorated on a blue plaque at the entrance to the pub unveiled ten years ago by James Watson ten years ago on 25 April 2003.

The ceiling of the ‘RAF Bar’ in the Eagle l(Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Behind the room where Watson and Crick shared a drink or two, we also had a look at the back bar with its RAF ceiling.

During World War II, the Eagle was popular venue forith RAF airmen and US air crews who were stationed at airfields close to Camridge. They left their mark in graffiti on the ceiling of this bar, scorching their names and squadron numbers with candle smoke and cigarette lighters or writing with lipstick.

A major restoration of the Eagle was carried out by Corpus Christi and Greene King in 1988, and the Eagle reopened as it now is in 1992.

Of course, discoveries are not just made in seminar rooms or laboratories. Over the years many a scientific theory, literary argument, advance in medicine – or even a theological theory, as I have discovered, year-after-year at the Institute of Orthodox Christian Studies – has been debated in the Eagle and other similar pubs in Cambridge.

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