| Student of John Randall
Randall is said by the great scientist and thinker Freeman Dyson to be more responsible than any single person for the microbiological revolution. Prior to this, says Dyson, he had an undistinguished career as a solid-state physicist in Birmingham.
Maurice Wilkins completed his Ph.D in 1940 under Randall at Birmingham, his thesis subject being the study of the thermal stability of trapped electrons on phosphors, and on the theory of phosphorescence in terms of electron traps.
These ideas were applied to his work during the war on improving Cathode-ray tube
screens for radar and the technology Wilkins developed is still used in modern radar. He
later worked under M.L.E. Oliphant, who had been Rutherford's deputy of research at
Cambridge, studying the separation of isotopes in bombs.
In 1943 the research group moved from Birmingham to Berkeley, California working under Robert Oppenheimer as part of the Manhattan Project, the American wartime initiative exploring nuclear physics. The Manhattan Project's research led to the completion, and use, of 'Fat Man' dropped on Hiroshima and 'Little Boy' dropped on Nagasaki in 1945. The experience led Maurice Wilkins to become a vocal opponent of nuclear weapons, a stance unpopular during the years following the War. He remained an ardent opponent of nuclear weapons and served as President of the British Society for Social Responsibility in Science.
Wilkins said later he didn't have a sense of the catastrophic possibilities of nuclear weapons during his time at Berkeley. It was a war effort, and their focus was on gaining the technological upper hand over the Nazis.
|Move to Biophysics
After the war Wilkins became a lecturer in physics at St. Andrew's University Scotland where his old boss John Randall was organising studies into biophysics. By 1945 Randall was a national hero. He was made Sir John and acclaimed as the saviour of the country. Randall had decided solid-state physics was rather dull, so instead concentrated on X-ray crystallography with a view to applying it to biology.
At the time biophysics was a new concept involving crossover methodologies of previously unrelated disciplines. Wilkins' decision to move from physics to biophysics was driven by his wartime work into nuclear possibilities.
Randall became a full professor at King's College London, with the prestige to do anything he liked. He moved the biophysics lab from St. Andrews to Kings College in 1946, where Wilkins, age 30, was appointed to the newly formed Medical Research Council Biophysics Research Unit. At first he worked on the genetic effects of ultrasonics, later switching to developing reflecting microscopes for the ultraviolet microspectrophotometric study of nucleic acids in cells.
Using a visible light-polarising microscope, he studied virus particles
in the tobacco mosaic virus and later began X-ray diffraction studies of
DNA and sperm heads. His discovery of a well-defined and crystalline
pattern in this material greatly enhanced knowledge of the molecular
structure of DNA. With this method it was possible to photograph molecules
and show the actual shape of DNA.
|Picturing The Double Helix
The lab became focused on X-ray crystallography, turning biology upside down. In 1950 Maurice Wilkins and Raymond Gosling took the first images of DNA, producing pictures of X-ray diffraction in aligned fibres of DNA (the double helix). Gosling's work was continued by Rosalind Franklin who joined the lab the following year.
The discovery and demonstrations inspired American scientist James Watson who, with a friend and colleague of Wilkins', Francis Crick, was working at the Cavendish Laboratory. Using a 1952 Wilkins/Franklin X-ray diffraction picture of the DNA molecule, Crick and Watson were able in 1953 to build their correct and detailed model of the DNA molecule.
The breakthrough was as big as any in 20th century science; its discovery opened the doors for science to find out exactly what creates individuals - both physically and mentally. The names of Crick and Watson spread like wildfire through the scientific community, and soon the world.
Wilkins became, the "third man of DNA", both invisible and reluctant. He told the New Zealand Listener in 1994 "if you have something as explosive in its profound scientific effects as DNA, it is normal to get some very big tensions building up between the people involved".
The tensions centred particularly around the relationship between Wilkins and Rosalind Franklin, the young, gifted chemist who was particularly skilled with X-ray diffraction. In his 1997 book Crick, Watson and DNA, Paul Strathern points out the testy relationship between Wilkins and Franklin was due to both their temperaments and the social climate of the day:
History has differing accounts of the relationship between Wilkins and Franklin - essentially conflict over the acknowledgement of their roles in the discoveries. They had different temperaments and certainly there were arguments. In the Listener story Wilkins stated that she might have had problems with the working environment at King's College:
He has later added:
History can only speculate whether Rosalind Franklin would have been
awarded a Nobel Prize in 1962, especially as the Nobel rules allow a
maximum of three awards for a single discovery. Rosalind Franklin died of
cancer in 1958, age 37, almost certainly due to the effects of the X-
|Series Of Conclusions
As for the discovery of the DNA structure, indeed all scientific discoveries, Maurice Wilkins believes that it is rarely the work of one person or team. Instead, breakthroughs come via a series of conclusions, over a period of years, often with unconnected teams working on slightly related topics.
Freeman Dyson is in no doubt about the contribution of Wilkins and
Franklin to the discovery of DNA. In Wired magazine in 1998, he
said "[They] gave Crick and Watson their data. Nobody else in the world
had that data. The Crick-Watson discovery of the double helix was not a
concept, it really was just the result of having a good tool to analyse
the DNA molecule with."
Nobel Prize winners,
Maurice Wilkins spent the rest of his career teaching, campaigning against
nuclear weapons and writing his life story. He died at the age of 87 in
Maurice Wilkins with a plaque celebrating his achievements, at Strand
Campus, King's College, London, c.1999.
|For key references on Maurice Wilkins' life
and achievements, you might like to read:
Watson, J.D. (1980) The Double Helix: A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA, Stent, G. ed. New York, Norton.
Olby, R. (1974) The Path to the Double Helix, MacMillan Press Ltd.
Portugal, F.H. & Cohen, J.S. (1977) A Century of DNA: A History of the Discovery of the Structure and Function of the Genetic Substance. Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Hutton, R. (1978) Bio-Revolution and the Ethics of Man-Made Life. Mentor Publishing.
Further reading about DNA
Suzuki, D & Levine, J. (1993) Cracking the Code. Allen & Unwin.
Grobstein, C. (1979) The Double Image of the Double Helix. W.H. Freeman & Company.
Gros, F. (1989) The Gene Civilization. McGraw Hill.
Stewart, K. (1994) "The Forgotten Nobel Winner", New Zealand Listener, June 11.
Stewart, K. (1999) "The Third Man", New Zealand Listener, April 24.
Franklin, R. & Gosling, R. (1953) "Molecular Configuration in Sodium Thymonucleate", Nature, 171 (4356), pp. 740-741.
King's College, London, 50th
Anniversary celebrations of DNA structure discovery.
The (British) Royal Society,
Medical Research Council and Nature magazine have created a website
to celebrate history and events celebrating the 50th Anniversary.
Time magazine has
dedicated an issue to the 50th Anniversary of the discovery.
Maurice Wilkins talks to The Institute of Science in Society on social
responsibility in science in a 1999 address.
"Freeman Dyson's Brain: Stewart Brand talks to the deepest futurist alive - and
the most trustworthy". (1999) Wired, Feb.
"The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 1962 : MAURICE HUGH FREDERICK WILKINS
Biography", The Electronic Nobel Museum.
Wilkins featured in the history of Genetics.
Ardell, D. "Rosalind Franklin Pioneer Profile", Access
Excellence: Biotech Chronicles. The National Health Museum
"The Discovery of the Double Helix", Invention and Design. Division
of Technology, Culture and Communication, at the University of Virginia.
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