Maurice Hugh Frederick Wilkins (December 15, 1916 – October 5, 2004) was a New Zealand born British physicist and Nobel Laureate who contributed research in the fields of phosphorescence, radar, isotope separation, and X-ray diffraction. He was most widely known for his work leading to the discovery of the structure of DNA, a molecule which stores genetic information.
Life and Career
Wilkins was born in Pongaroa, north Wairarapa, New Zealand where his father was a medical doctor. His family moved to England when he was six. He studied physics at St. John's College, Cambridge, then in 1940 he received his Ph.D. in physics at the University of Birmingham with a dissertation on phosphors. During World War II he developed improved radar screens at Birmingham, then worked on isotope separation at the Manhattan Project at the University of California, Berkeley for two years before returning to King's College, London. "After the war I wondered what I would do, as I was very disgusted with the dropping of two bombs on civilian centres in Japan," he told Britain's Encounter radio programme in 1999.
At King's College he pursued, among other things X-ray diffraction work. Although he had originated the X-ray research on DNA there, his supervisor brought in Rosalind Franklin to improve the results. Wilkins used the improved x-ray images without permission from Franklin, to help James D. Watson and Francis Crick deduce the structure of DNA in 1953. Watson and Crick only acknowledged the "general nature of the unpublished results and ideas" of Wilkins and Franklin in their groundbreaking paper in the journal Nature in April of 1953. In separate articles of the same issue, Wilkins and Franklin provided supporting evidence. Wilkins went on to prove that the double-helical structure they proposed was indeed correct.
He married Patricia Ann Chidgey in 1959. They had two children, Sarah and George.
In 1960 he was presented with the American Public Health Association's Albert Lasker Award, and in 1962 he was made a Companion of the British Empire. Also in 1962 he shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with Watson and Crick. Many in the molecular biology community have long felt that since Franklin died early, and Wilkins was much less of a publicity-seeker, that Watson and Crick have in the popular mind overshadowed Wilkins and Franklin to an undeserved degree. For instance, while most textbooks describe the double helix as the "W-C" (for "Watson-Crick") model of DNA, there is a longstanding tradition at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory of referring to it as the "W-C-M-F" model with the M for "Maurice" and the F for "Franklin."
He published his autobiography, "The Third Man of the Double Helix," in 2003. He died a year later. At the time of his death, he was still a member of King's College London staff and remained an ardent campaigner against nuclear weapons.