Odile Speed Crick, 86; painter of nudes sketched the double helix of DNA

Times Staff Writer

Odile Speed Crick, the bohemian painter of nudes whose most famous drawing was an illustration of DNA that appeared in a seminal paper by her husband, Francis Crick, and James Watson on its structure, died July 5 in La Jolla after a short illness. She was 86.

Although the Crick household was filled with her paintings of curvaceous women, the artist subjugated her career to that of her husband, providing strength and support throughout their 55-year marriage.

Odile Speed Crick obituary: The obituary of painter Odile Speed Crick in the July 21 California section reported that she is survived by four grandchildren. Crick is survived by two grandchildren and four step-grandchildren. —

An excellent cook and a convivial host, she entertained Watson and Maurice Wilkins as they and her husband were sorting through the theories that ultimately led to the description of the double helix, as well as crystallographer Rosalind Franklin, whose X-ray images of the structure were crucial to Watson and Crick’s efforts.

The painter later cared for Franklin after her unsuccessful surgeries for ovarian cancer.

Throughout Crick’s career, the parties at the couple’s homes were a polyglot mixing bowl for scientists and other intellectuals.

The events usually featured a large alcoholic punch bowl, and the whiff of a joint was common. At one party, a nude woman reclined on a sofa as a model for guests.

Odile Speed was born in King’s Lynn, England, on Aug. 11, 1920, the daughter of a jeweler and his French wife. Her interest in art took her to Vienna in the 1930s and would have led her to the Sorbonne had World War II not broken out.

She joined the British Admiralty, where her fluency in German was put to use listening to German radio broadcasts, then translating captured torpedo manuals. Crick was working in the same office, studying circuits in German acoustic torpedoes.

They met in 1945, when she accidentally spilled a bag of Brussels sprouts near his desk. While helping her pick them up, Crick asked her out, but she refused. Although Crick was still married — but getting a divorce — he persisted, and she eventually gave in. She married him in 1949, wearing a dress of her own design.

She cared for Crick through his three-year battle with cancer; he died in 2004.

Throughout her life, she painted primarily nudes. Among her subjects were her husband’s secretaries and au pairs hired to look after the couple’s children. Her only other scientific illustration was a drawing of a girl running that appeared in one of her husband’s last papers, an article in Nature Neuroscience on consciousness.

She is survived by two daughters, Gabrielle A. Crick and Jacqueline M-T Nichols, both of England; a stepson, Michael F.C. Crick of Seattle; and four grandchildren.