Wilkins, Maurice Hugh Frederick

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Author: Rena Selya
Date: 2008
Complete Dictionary of Scientific Biography
Publisher: Charles Scribner's Sons
Document Type: Biography
Pages: 4
Content Level: (Level 5)

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(b. Pongaroa, New Zealand, 15 December 1916; d., London, United Kingdom, 5 October 2004), physics, Manhattan Project, biophysics, molecular biology.

Originally trained as a physicist, Wilkins was one of the participants in the Manhattan Project who moved into the nascent field of molecular biology in the immediate post–World War II era. Working at King’s College, London, he used x-ray diffraction of the DNA molecule in order to discern its structure. His preparations were used by Rosalind Franklin to take x-ray photographs of DNA in crystalline form. Those photographs helped James Watson and Francis Crick to elucidate the double-helical structure of DNA. Wilkins shared the 1962 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with Watson and Crick and was active in the British Society for Social Responsibility in Science. He is perhaps best known in the history of science for his conflict with Franklin, which was scientifically and personally damaging to both.

Early Life. Maurice Hugh Frederick Wilkins was born in New Zealand to Irish parents. His father Edgar was a physician who had a strong interest in public health and the family moved to London in 1922 so that he could pursue a diploma of public health. When he finished, the family moved to Birmingham, where Edgar was a school doctor. In his autobiography, Maurice Wilkins recalled how as a boy he developed a love of science and sense of pride in British achievements in technology by reading the Modern Boy magazine. His childhood hobby of building models of flying machines matured into the study of astronomy and physics at Cambridge University.

Physics Career. Wilkins thrived intellectually and socially at Cambridge. He became active in several student organizations, including the Cambridge Scientists’ Anti-War Group and the Natural Sciences Club. His talk for the club was a presentation on J. D. Bernal’s work on x-ray crystallography. Wilkins’s first mentor in physics at Cambridge was Marcus Oliphant, and after graduating in 1938, he followed his professor back to Birmingham to study thermoluminescence under John T. Randall. Luminescence allowed Wilkins to combine his interests in crystalline structure and x-ray diffraction. After World War II began, nearly the entire Department of Physics was involved in defense research on radar. Wilkins completed the requirements for his PhD in 1940, and soon joined Oliphant’s atomic bomb research team and investigated how to evaporate uranium metal.

In 1944, the Birmingham Bomb Lab relocated to Berkeley, California, to join forces with the Manhattan Project. When the war ended, Wilkins was not interested in continuing nuclear research. Randall was starting a new

Maurice Hugh Frederick Wilkins

Maurice Hugh Frederick Wilkins. Maurice Hugh Frederick Wilkins at work in his laboratory. SPL/PHOTO RESEARCHERS, INC.

project exploring the links between physics and biology and offered Wilkins a spot in his laboratory. After reading Erwin Schrödinger’s What Is Life?, he was inspired to join Randall and investigate Schrödinger’s proposal that the gene was an aperiodic crystal. After spending a year at St Andrews in Scotland, Randall’s biophysics group moved to King’s College, London, with funding from the Medical Research Council early in 1947.

Biophysics to the Double Helix of DNA. Wilkins cast about for an appropriate research subject within the complex structure of the cell. While he was searching, he met a physics graduate student named Francis Crick, who was interested in interdisciplinary approaches to biology. Although Randall did not offer Crick a position in the biophysics unit, Wilkins and Crick socialized often.

By 1950, Wilkins had settled on macromolecules as a way to combine his physics skills and biology interests. The question of macromolecular structure was tantalizing, Page 299  |  Top of Articleand evidence was accumulating from biochemistry, genetics, and x-ray crystallography. In 1944, Oswald Avery had shown that genes were made of DNA, and his work was slowly disseminated through the genetics community. In the mid-1940s, a team of researchers in Leeds had determined that DNA fibers repeated their structure every 3.4 angstroms (Å) along their backbone. Wilkins began to collect specimens of nucleic acids, proteins, and viruses to x-ray and examine using ultraviolet microscopes, and soon narrowed his focus to DNA.

In a stroke of luck, he attended a seminar on 12 May 1950 by the Austrian researcher Rudolf Signer, who distributed samples of his high-quality calf thymus DNA. While preparing the samples for x-raying, Wilkins noticed that when he touched a glass rod to the moist DNA gel, he was able to draw out a thin filament of the molecule. As he recalled in his Nobel lecture, “the perfection and uniformity of the fibres suggested that the molecules in them were regularly arranged” and would be “excellent objects to study by X-ray diffraction analysis” (p. 756). Wilkins applied this technique to extracted DNA as well as to DNA in cells, but the Signer DNA gave the clearest pictures. Along with a graduate student, Raymond Gosling, Wilkins obtained clear diffraction patterns of wet DNA and noted that when the fibers were stretched and then constricted, they made patterns that appeared to be crystals. If DNA were a crystal, then it would be possible to analyze the x-ray images and draw conclusions about its structure. The correct model would have to account for the biochemical, genetic, and physical data on DNA, but the images could provide a direct method for determining its molecular structure.

Earlier that spring, Randall had endorsed the application of a talented x-ray crystallographer named Rosalind Franklin for a fellowship to join the biophysics unit at King's. Franklin was scheduled to begin her fellowship in January 1951, and in November 1950, Randall sent her a letter describing her future research project on “certain biological fibres in which we are interested.” It was a small group, Randall noted, and so “as far as the experimental X-ray effort is concerned there will be at the moment only yourself and Gosling” (cited in Maddox, 2002, p. 114, and Olby, 1994, p. 346). Apparently, he intended for Franklin and Gosling to study extracted DNA while Wilkins focused on cellular samples. Nevertheless, it is unclear why he excluded Wilkins from the description of DNA research at King's, and Wilkins was unaware of this letter.

The ensuing misunderstandings and acrimony led Franklin’s biographer Brenda Maddox to call this letter “the biggest mistake” of Randall’s life (p. 116). When Franklin first arrived at King's, she and Wilkins had cordial interactions, and even had meals together at the laboratory. They soon clashed over scientific questions, and by the summer of 1951, their working relationship had degenerated and they had little direct communication. Franklin was committed to a fine analysis of the x-ray diffraction patterns and was not interested in Wilkins’s more free-flowing approach. They rarely shared data, and Wilkins often disparaged her to Crick and Watson. In his frustration, Wilkins referred to Franklin as “Rosy,” or “the dark lady.” To the chagrin of many who knew her, James Watson used the same disrespectful nickname in The Double Helix (1980).

In May 1951, Wilkins traveled to Naples, Italy, to report on his research to a meeting on “Submicroscopical Structure of Protoplasm.” His images of a crystalline DNA pattern caught the attention of James Watson, who was in his first year of his European postdoctoral research. Wilkins’s presentation was part of the reason Watson decided to move to Cambridge to study the structure of nucleic acids under Lawrence Bragg. Wilkins went to the United States that summer to attend the Gordon Conference and meet Erwin Chargaff, the Columbia biochemist whose research on DNA had established the 1:1 ratio of its base pairs, adenine to thymine and guanine to cytosine.

Stimulated by his encounter with Chargaff, Wilkins returned to London only to discover that Franklin was not interested in biochemical data. She had recently noticed that DNA actually formed two patterns, labeled A and B, depending on how wet the samples were. The B, or “wet,” form yielded a clear crystalline pattern, but Franklin was focusing on doing a Patterson analysis of the more complicated A form. Although Randall told Wilkins to concentrate on the B form, he was soon inspired by Linus Pauling’s publication on the protein α-helix to search in his experimental data for evidence that DNA was also helical. He spent the rest of that year taking more x-ray photographs of different living samples of DNA, and trying to reconcile the diffraction and biochemical data. Wilkins contacted Signer in Vienna to try to get more samples of his high-quality DNA, since he had given all of his to Franklin, but Signer had none left.

Despite his lack of progress, Wilkins was heartened when he, Franklin, and several other colleagues were invited to Cambridge in late November 1951 to see a three-chain model of the DNA molecule that Watson and Crick had built. One look from Franklin was all it took to tell them that their model did not fit the diffraction data or rules of chemistry. When Bragg and Randall heard about the incorrect model, they agreed that Watson and Crick should leave the DNA problem to the team at King's.

However, Wilkins and Franklin made little noticeable progress on DNA in 1952. In May, Franklin took a clear photograph of the B form, which she labeled 51, but put Page 300  |  Top of Articleit aside because she was intently focused on a mathematical analysis of the A form. Wilkins spent most of the summer at a scientific conference in Brazil, and he brought back more cellular specimens to analyze as he perfected his x-ray equipment.

January 1953 brought renewed energy to the DNA project at King's. Wilkins saw Franklin’s clear Photograph 51 from May 1952, and understood that it showed a helical structure. He also began thinking seriously about the implications of Chargaff’s base-pair ratios. Franklin had decided to leave King’s and DNA research in favor of virus research at Birkbeck College, but as she was finishing up her research, she began to consider the possibility that the B form was evidence of a two-chain helix. However, because the relationship between them was so hostile, they did not consult each other on how to combine these ideas with the experimental evidence.

The King’s College researchers were unaware that Watson and Crick had once again begun working on DNA after hearing that Pauling was interested in its structure. When Wilkins showed Watson a copy of Photograph 51 in early February 1953, he had no idea that it would be the catalyst for Watson’s building of a correct model. Soon thereafter, Watson and Crick invited Wilkins to Cambridge to show him Pauling’s incorrect structure and to ask if they could once again tackle the DNA problem. He agreed, not knowing how close they were to a complete model. When they finished it in early March, Wilkins was the first person outside of Cambridge to see the double helix. After an afternoon of difficult conversation about how much the King’s work had helped Watson and Crick, he agreed that Wilkins and his colleagues would publish their data jointly with Watson and Crick’s announcement in Nature. Gosling and Franklin added a short note describing the helical evidence in the B photographs, and the three papers appeared on 25 April 1953.

Life after the Double Helix. The validity and importance of the double helix was quickly accepted by the scientific community, and its discoverers were given numerous awards. Wilkins was elected to the Royal Society in 1959, and he shared the 1960 Albert Lasker Award with Watson and Crick. Two years later, they were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for “discoveries concerning the molecular structure of nucleic acids and its significance for information transfer in living material.” (Nobel citation). In 1962, Wilkins was also honored as a Companion of the British Empire. Wilkins married Patricia Chidgey in 1958; they had four children.

Horace Freeland Judson describes Wilkins as “one who came early to X-ray studies of DNA and stayed late” (1979, p. 25). Wilkins spent many years using x-ray techniques to confirm and expand the double helix model of DNA and RNA, and officially stopped his DNA research in 1967. With colleagues at King’s College, he then turned to neurobiology and used diffraction techniques to examine cellular structures such as nucleohistone, lipids, photoreceptors, and different types of membranes.

Wilkins was dogged by historical accounts of his relationship with Franklin. He was outraged by the manuscript of Watson’s The Double Helix in part because of the portrayal of his relationship with Franklin. Wilkins was cast as a villain in Anne Sayre’s 1975 biography of Franklin, intended to be a balance to the story told in The Double Helix. He deeply resented Judson’s implication that he deliberately took Photograph 51 out of Franklin’s drawer to show Watson and defended himself on several occasions. Maddox’s 2002 biography of Franklin places part of the blame for her unhappiness at King’s on Randall, but provides evidence from Franklin’s letters that Wilkins’s behavior was a large factor in her decision to move to Birkbeck. In 2003, Wilkins published The Third Man of the Double Helix as an attempt to clarify his interactions with Franklin. In his account, he and Franklin both behaved in ways that prevented them from collaborating on DNA, and he regretted that their personal clash had a role in their losing the race to the double helix.

Science and Society. Since his student days at Cambridge, Wilkins was interested in the social implications of science and technology. Starting in the 1960s, he was involved with various antinuclear groups, including Pugwash, Food and Disarmament International, and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. Wilkins was particularly proud of his role as president of the British Society for Social Responsibility in Science (BSSRS) from 1969 to 1991. In 1970, with support from the Salk Institute in San Diego, BSSRS organized a three-day public meeting to discuss “the social impact of modern biology.” Wilkins served as the chair of the discussions, and offered introductory and closing remarks to the eight hundred attendees. In an atmosphere of intense antiscience sentiment, Wilkins argued for the value of scientific research to modern society and noted that scientists had an obligation to ensure that the public had a thorough understanding of the content and applications of their work.

In 1984, Wilkins expounded on the same theme in an address on “The Nobility of the Scientific Enterprise,” delivered at the thirty-fourth meeting of medical Nobel laureates. Unabashedly optimistic, he praised scientists for their love of nature and dedication to knowledge, and urged them to consider the advancement of science as a way to further human ideals. Science and technology had done harm to the world in the twentieth century, but with a moral approach, scientists could simultaneously “save Page 301  |  Top of Articlethe world from war and restore dignity and nobility to science” (1985, p. 90).

Wilkins retired from teaching at King’s College in 1981, having spent virtually his entire career there, as professor of molecular biology from 1963 to 1970, professor of biophysics from 1970 to 1981, and director of the MRC Cell Biophysics Unit from 1974 to 1980. In March 2000, King’s named a major new building for Franklin and Wilkins. He continued to attend seminars on scientific and social issues until shortly before his death on 5 October 2004.


A complete list of Wilkins’s scientific publications is available through the Web of Science database. Archival collections with correspondence from Wilkins include the Francis Crick Papers, the Wellcome Library for the History and Understanding of Medicine; the James D. Watson Papers, the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory; and the Linus and Ava Helen Pauling Papers, Oregon State University.


With Raymond Gosling and William E. Seeds. “Physical Studies of Nucleic Acid: An Extensible Molecule.” Nature 167 (1951): 759–760.

“Engineering, Biophysics and Physics at King’s College, London.” Nature 170 (1952): 261–263.

With Alec R. Stokes and Herbert R. Wilson. “Molecular Structure of Deoxypentose Nucleic Acids.” Nature 171 (1953): 738–740.

With William E. Seeds, Alec R. Stokes, and Herbert R. Wilson. “Helical Structure of Crystalline Deoxypentose Nucleic Acid.” Nature 172 (1953): 759–762.

“Physical Studies of the Molecular Structure of Deoxyribose Nucleic Acid and Nucleoprotein.” In Genetic Mechanisms: Structure and Function. Cold Spring Harbor Symposia on Quantitative Biology 21. Cold Spring Harbor, NY: Biological Laboratory, 1956.

“Structure of DNA and Nucleoprotein.” Transactions of the Faraday Society 53 (1957): 249.

“The Molecular Structure of Nucleic Acids.” In Nobel Lectures, Physiology or Medicine, 1942–1962. Amsterdam: Elsevier Publishing Company, 1964. Also available from http://nobelprize.org/ .

With J. F. Pardon and B. M. Richards. “Super-Helical Model for Nucleohistone.” Nature 215 (1967): 509.

With Max Perutz and James D. Watson. “DNA Helix.” Science 164 (1969): 1537–1539.

“Introduction” and “Possible Ways to Rebuild Science.” In The Social Impact of Modern Biology, edited by Watson Fuller. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1971.

“The Nobility of the Scientific Enterprise.” Interdisciplinary Science Reviews 10 (1985): 86–90.

“John Turton Randall, 23 March 1905–16 June 1984.” Biographical Memoirs of the Fellows of the Royal Society 33 (1987): 491–535.

“DNA at King’s College, London.” In DNA: The Double Helix. Perspective and Prospective at Forty Years, edited by Donald A. Chambers. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 758 (1995): 200–204.

The Third Man of the Double Helix: The Autobiography of Maurice Wilkins. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.


Crick, Francis. What Mad Pursuit? A Personal View of Scientific Discovery. New York: Basic Books, 1988.

De Chadarevian, Soraya. Designs for Life: Molecular Biology after World War II. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Franklin, Rosalind E., and R. G. Gosling. “Molecular Configuration in Sodium Thymonucleate” Nature 171 (1953): 740–741.

Gratzer, Walter. “Obituary: Maurice Wilkins (1916–2004).” Nature 431 (2004): 922.

Judson, Horace Freeland. The Eighth Day of Creation: Makers of the Revolution in Biology. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1979.

Maddox, Brenda. Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA. New York: HarperCollins, 2002.

Morange, Michel. A History of Molecular Biology. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998.

“Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, 1962.” Nobel Prize. Available from http://www.nobelprize.org/nobelprizes/medicine . Includes the Nobel citation and text of Nobel speeches.

Olby, Robert. The Path to the Double Helix: The Discovery of DNA. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1974. 2nd ed. 1994.

Sayre, Anne. Rosalind Franklin and DNA. New York: Norton, 1975.

Stent, Gunther S. “That Was the Molecular Biology That Was.” Science 160 (26 April 1968): 390–395.

Watson, J. D. and F. H. C. Crick. “A Structure for Deoxyribose Nucleic Acid.” Nature 171 (1953): 737–738.

Watson, James D. The Double Helix: A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA. Norton Critical Edition, edited by Gunther Stent. New York: W. W. Norton Company, 1980.

Rena Selya

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Selya, Rena. "Wilkins, Maurice Hugh Frederick." Complete Dictionary of Scientific Biography, vol. 25, Charles Scribner's Sons, 2008, pp. 298-301. Gale Ebooks, https%3A%2F%2Flink.gale.com%2Fapps%2Fdoc%2FCX2830906208%2FGVRL%3Fu%3Dmpi_vb%26sid%3DGVRL%26xid%3Dd61c41dc. Accessed 18 Sept. 2019.

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