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Rewriting Life

The Third Man

Maurice Wilkins’s early fascination with DNA was essential to the discovery of the double helix.

Maurice Wilkins, the biophysicist who died on October 5, 2004, at age 87, was the most reticent and least-known of the three researchers awarded the Nobel Prize in 1962 for the discovery of the double helix, the structural basis of DNA. Wilkins operated in the long shadows of James Watson and Francis Crick, the duo most associated with a discovery that many rank as the most significant, in any field of research, of the 20th century.

If Watson and Crick were the Mick Jagger and Keith Richards of molecular biology, Maurice Wilkins was the field’s Charlie Watts, an understated and self-effacing scientist who provided the crucial underpinnings for modern DNA research. Without the early work of Wilkins and his colleague Rosalind Franklin at King’s College, London, in the field of x-ray diffraction – an imaging technique that reveals the molecular structure of materials – it is unlikely that Watson and Crick could have made their discoveries. And even after the double helix was revealed in 1953, Wilkins spent the better part of the next decade confirming the finding.

In Watson’s bestselling memoir from 1968, The Double Helix, he described the moment when Wilkins first showed him an x-ray diffraction image that hinted at the helical structure. “The instant I saw the picture,” Watson writes, “my mouth fell open and my pulse began to race.”

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Controversy would later arise when it was revealed that Rosalind Franklin was responsible for creating the x-ray image, and that Wilkins had shared it without her knowledge. Wilkins never disputed this version of events and admits in his autobiography, The Third Man of the Double Helix (2003), that he had been “rather foolish to show it to Jim during our hurried conversation in the corridor.” Though Wilkins had a reputation for humility, he was not without competitive instincts. Writing of Watson, he confessed, “Jim later wrote that seeing the pattern had spurred him on tremendously….If I had known that, I might well not have shown him the pattern.”

The credit that many felt Rosalind Franklin never received for her contribution to the discovery of DNA would be a source of unease for Wilkins for the rest of his life. But the controversy does little to diminish his own record of achievement.

Like many gifted scientists in wartime Britain, Wilkins, who studied physics at the University of Cambridge, was enlisted to perform military research. He first joined a group of scientists working to develop radar and made contributions that proved valuable to the Allied war effort. In his memoir, Wilkins writes that the radar project gave him his first sense that science could be used to preserve life and hasten the end of the war.

Wilkins’s next assignment took him to Berkeley, CA, where he joined the Manhattan Project, researching ways to separate out the particular uranium isotope needed to make an atomic bomb. Though he felt it urgent for the Allies to invent the atom bomb before the Germans, the work also caused him moral unease. But after hearing the concerns of his colleagues, many of whom were refugees who had lost family and friends in Europe, he put his reservations aside.

It was toward the end of his stay in California that Wilkins read What Is Life? by Erwin Schrodinger, a quantum physicist and Nobel laureate. As Wilkins put it, Schrodinger linked the “biological idea of a gene with the rather strange world of electrons moving in crystals.” Intrigued with the new field of “biophysics,” Wilkins set out in his postwar career to apply his training as a physicist to the study of genetics. Wilkins joined King’s College, London, in 1946 and remained on the staff there until the day he died.

After the weapons he had helped to create fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Wilkins committed himself to promoting social responsibility in the application of scientific knowledge, later drawing attention to potentially harmful uses of DNA research. He also used his status as a Nobel laureate to advocate for nuclear disarmament and ethical scientific practices.

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