Maurice Wilkins

Maurice Wilkins, 1999

Maurice Wilkins

DNA Enabler

A Nobel Prize winner in Physiology and Medicine in 1962 for his contribution to the discovery of the structure of DNA – the very essence of life itself – and a New Zealander by birth, Maurice Wilkins is among our greatest achievers.

Research undertaken by Maurice Wilkins, with support from Rosalind Franklin, led to the discovery of the DNA molecule structure. This discovery, by American geneticist James Watson and British biophysicist Francis Crick in 1953, revolutionised biology and medicine.

DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) is known as the ‘building blocks of life’. It contains material that is unique to the individual but also inherited. It can tell us possible diseases an individual may suffer, or any number of human characteristics. Because it is unique, DNA testing is now a common tool used by police for accurately pinpointing criminals, the same way fingerprinting has been used for the last 100 years.

Crick and Watson’s announcement of a structure for DNA and how it is made of nucleic acid suggested how it might replicate, mutate, and be expressed. They proposed that the DNA molecule takes the shape of a double helix, an elegantly simple structure that resembles a gently-twisted ladder. The rails of the ladder are made of alternating units of phosphate and the sugar deoxyribose; the rungs are each composed of a pair of nitrogen-containing nucleotides.

Living In Paradise

New Zealand’s second great international scientist (after Rutherford) was born Maurice Hugh Frederick Wilkins (in 1916) at Pongaroa in the Wairarapa. This is an isolated community 60km east of Pahiatua. His parents were Irish and his father, Edgar Wilkins, was a doctor with the School Medical Service and also, interestingly for the times, a vegetarian. Later, many of Dr. Wilkins’ findings were used in the treatment of children in industrial, poverty-stricken areas of Birmingham. The family moved from Pongaroa to Wellington when Wilkins was still a baby, living at 30 Kelburn Parade. Wilkins said these years were like “living in paradise”. His years in Wellington were the happiest of his life and he firmly believed the opportunities for exploration and discovery while living in New Zealand helped with his later development as a scientist. He is one of many New Zealanders who contributed greatly to science in the 20th Century.

“In the time of my parents, before World War One, most people who came to New Zealand from Europe were the more enterprising people; the people who were stronger mentally. It takes a certain amount of imagination to make a life on the other side of the world, the same imagination it takes to climb the tallest mountain.”

His father, wanting to further his studies in preventative medicine, moved the family to Britain when Wilkins was six. He was educated at Birmingham’s excellent King Edward School and St. John’s College, Cambridge. He gained a physics degree in 1938, then returned to Birmingham to work as research assistant to Dr. John Randall on the development of radar.

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.

“World War II had started however and there was a desperate need for microwave transmitters. The English defense system was based on meter-wave radar, which was completely inadequate – and everybody knew it. If you wanted effective radar, you needed microwaves. Randall was asked to invent a good microwave transmitter. It took him just two months. In November 1939 he invented the cavity magnetron. A thousand times more powerful than any other microwave transmitter at the time, it absolutely revolutionised the whole state of the art. The device was the biggest contribution from Britain to the United States, given to them before the US even entered the war.”

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.

Manhattan Project

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  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.

“Looking back it was a pretty horrifying situation as the Nazis were winning most facets of the war.”

Yet in hindsight, he said the Nazis were lacking the essential brain power as many of their top thinkers had left, or had to leave, Germany.

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.

“I was a solid-state physicist, my Ph.D work related to microchips. After the bomb I wanted to go into another branch of science, one with more positive applications.”

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.

The trio of Crick, Watson and Wilkins were awarded the 1962 Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine for their discoveries.

Teams, Tensions

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 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:

“This was 1950s Britain, very much a stone age where relationships between the sexes were concerned. Quite simply, Wilkins had no idea how to deal with a woman in his laboratory. And ‘Rosy’ Franklin was no ordinary woman. The willful daughter of a cultured Jewish banking family, she had her own ideas about how things should be run. Right from the start there was ‘chemistry’ between the bachelor Wilkins and the unmarried Franklin. Unfortunately, it was negative chemistry. And to make matters worse, Franklin arrived under the impression that she was taking over the X-ray diffraction work on DNA. Wilkins, on the other hand, thought she was being taken on as his assistant.”

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:

“Everyone was in informal groups, all following up interesting things. As scientists go she was perfectly normal, but our lab was very abnormal. It was called ‘Randall’s Circus’ – and it was productive, but it was not what she was used to.”

He has later added:

“It was a very odd place for the time. I suppose the whole place could be seen as very amateurish, but when you’re dealing with brand new science you are an amateur to a certain extent.”

“The strange environment did isolate Rosalind Franklin. Much has been made of her role. There are a couple of new books coming out about her which should, hopefully, be clearer on what happened. I’m afraid Sayre’s book [Rosalind Franklin & DNA by Anne Sayre] is wildly inaccurate and does make her out to be something of a martyr.”

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- rays.

In Stockholm for their Nobel Prizes, December 1962: Maurice Wilkins, John Steinbeck, John Kendrew, Max Perutz, Francis Crick, and James D Watson. The Double Helix – A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA James D Watson, Norton, 1980

Series Of Conclusions

As for the discovery of the DNA structure, indeed all scientific discoveries, 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.

“The discovery of the double helix was far more co-operative than what many people think. At the 40th anniversary of the discovery, held in Chicago, Francis Crick, who didn’t attend, but sent a written statement, addressed it as the “double helix co-operative discovery”. It was more than just Kings and Cavendish, there were teams in Scandinavia and in the States whose work was vital to ours.”

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, December 1962 Maurice Wilkins, Max Perutz, Francis Crick, John Steinbeck, James D Watson, John Kendrew (UPI/Bettman) Permission: Corbis

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 October 2004.

Maurice Wilkins with a plaque celebrating his achievements, at Strand Campus, King’s College, London, c.1999. Permission Maurice Wilkins

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

Web References:

New Zealand Royal Society events to celebrate the 50th Anniversary, including the unveiling of an inspirational plaque at Victoria University and a poem by Chis Oarsman.
[Accessed March 2003]

King’s College, London, 50th Anniversary celebrations of DNA structure discovery.
[Accessed March 2003]

The (British) Royal Society, Medical Research Council and Nature magazine have created a website to celebrate history and events celebrating the 50th Anniversary.
[Accessed March 2003]

Time magazine has dedicated an issue to the 50th Anniversary of the discovery.
[Accessed March 2003]

Maurice Wilkins talks to The Institute of Science in Society on social responsibility in science in a 1999 address.
[Accessed March 2003]

“Freeman Dyson’s Brain: Stewart Brand talks to the deepest futurist alive – and the most trustworthy”. (1999) Wired, Feb.
[Accessed November 1999]

“The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 1962 : MAURICE HUGH FREDERICK WILKINS Biography”, The Electronic Nobel Museum.
[Accessed November 1999]

Wilkins featured in the history of Genetics:

“The People of Genetics”, Life: A study of Genetics and Molecular Biology.
[Accessed November 1999]

Ardell, D. “Rosalind Franklin Pioneer Profile”, Access Excellence: Biotech Chronicles. The National Health Museum
[Accessed November 1999]

“The Discovery of the Double Helix”, Invention and Design. Division of Technology, Culture and Communication, at the University of Virginia.
< id_disc_19doubhel.html>
[Accessed November 1999].

Sites which have linked to this page:

New Zealand Royal Society

Victoria University

University of Canterbury

Laboratory of Molecular Biology, Cambridge, UK

University of Sydney

International Institute of Modern Letters

DNA From the Beginning

Wolfram Research

The Nobel Prize Internet Archive

Science Links

Treasure Trove of Scientific Biographies


Tags: DNA  Double Helix  Maurice Wilkins  Medicine  Michael King  Nobel Prize  Physiology  

  • Paul Charteris - 10:44 am on June 26th, 2003
    Dear NZEDGE, Who's hot this month? In fact who's hot this week? - Maurice Wilkins. Here's the TIME Magazine article on the discovery of the structure of DNA. Their URL is: Cheers, Paul Charteris. Student Palmerston North, New Zealand
  • Student - 10:43 am on June 26th, 2003
    Hello, I found your article on Maurice Wilkins fascinating. In fact, at the King's College celebrations surrounding the elucidation of the structure of DNA (, I was honoured to see him speak and even met him very, very briefly - at 86, he is still a piece of living history. Student London, England
  • Charles Vigue - 10:46 am on January 25th, 2003
    I recently read your article entitled "Maurice Wilkins: DNA Enabler" which is posted on the World Wide Web. It is an excellent article. I am preparing a short article on Dr. Wilkins for the Connecticut Journal of Science Education which is publishing a special issue commemorating the 50th anniversary of the discovery. I am seeking permission to use the photograph of Dr. Wilkins which accompanies your article at the top. The journal is distributed free of charge to science teachers in Connecticut. Charles Vigue. Professor New Haven, USA
  • Scientist - 10:49 am on February 7th, 2000
    "I am ashamed to say that I did not know that Maurice Wilkins was born in NZ or that we had so many world class scientists this century. Thank you for helping me articulate some of the feelings I have had about leaving NZ to achieve my dreams of becoming a scientist, I can assure you, leaving everything you know for another country crystallises what you feel about NZ. Every day I think about the things I have learnt and will learn and about how I will apply them back home once I get the chance. Keep it up." Scientist Melbourne, Australia
Leave a Comment

Archibald McIndoe

Archibald McIndoe

Motivated by a desire to be more than just an ordinary doctor, Archibald Hector McIndoe pursued greatness and became much more than an ordinary surgeon. Appointed plastic surgeon to the Royal…

Please leave a comment we’d love to hear your thoughts.

Twitter Feed