News archive 2003
Nobel Laureate, Maurice Wilkins's autobiography published30 Oct 2003, PR 74/03
The Third Man of the Double Helix: The Autobiography of Maurice Wilkins. The as-yet-untold side of the story of the discovery of the Double Helix
(OUP press release)
Francis Crick and Jim Watson are well known for their discovery of the structure of DNA in Cambridge in 1953. But they shared the Nobel Prize for the discovery of the Double Helix with a third man, Maurice Wilkins, a diffident physicist who did not enjoy the limelight.
He and his team at King’s College London had painstakingly measured the angles, bonds, and orientations of the DNA structure - data that inspired Crick and Watson’s celebrated model - and they then spent many years demonstrating that Crick and Watson were right before the Prize was awarded in 1962.
Wilkins’s career had already embraced another momentous and highly controversial scientific achievement - he had worked during World War II on the atomic bomb project - and he was to face a new controversy in the 1970s when his co-worker at King’s, the late Rosalind Franklin, was proclaimed the unsung heroine of the DNA story, and he was accused of exploiting her work.
Now aged 86, Maurice Wilkins marks the 50th anniversary of the discovery of the double helix by telling, for the first time, his own story of the discovery of the DNA structure and his relationship with Rosalind Franklin.
He also describes a life and career spanning many continents, from his idyllic early childhood in New Zealand via the Birmingham suburbs to Cambridge, Berkeley, and London, and recalls his encounters with distinguished scientists including Arthur Eddington, Niels Bohr, and J D Bernal. He also reflects on the role of scientists in a world still coping with the Bomb and facing the implications of the gene revolution, and considers, in this intimate history, the successes, problems, and Politics of nearly a century of science.
Maurice Wilkins was born at Pongaroa, New Zealand, in 1916. He studied physics at Cambridge, graduating in 1938, and went on to work in J T (later Sir John) Randall’s research group at Birmingham. In 1944 he moved to Berkeley, California, to work on the Manhattan Project.
After the war he joined Randall’s new biophysics group at St Andrews. The group moved in 1946 to King’s College London and it was here where Wilkins began X-ray diffraction studies of DNA. These X-ray measurements, made with Rosalind Franklin and others, eventually established the correctness of the double helix structure of DNA proposed in 1953 by Watson and Crick at the Cavendish Laboratory, Cambridge. In 1962, Crick, Watson, and Wilkins were jointly awarded the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine for this discovery.
Emeritus Professor of Biophysics at King’s College London, Maurice Wilkins lives in London with his wife Pat.
Notes to editors
King's College London
King's College London is the fourth oldest university in England with more than 13,700 undergraduates and nearly 5,600 graduate students in nine schools of study based at five London campuses. It is a member of the Russell Group: a coalition of the UK's major research-based universities. The College has had 24 of its subject-areas awarded the highest rating of 5* and 5 for research quality, demonstrating excellence at an international level, and it has recently received an excellent result in its audit by the Quality Assurance Agency.
King's has a particularly distinguished reputation in the humanities, law, international relations, medicine, nursing and the sciences, and has played major role in many of the advances that have shaped modern life, such as the discovery of the structure of DNA. It is the largest centre for the education of health care professionals in Europe and is home to five Medical Research Council Centres – more than any other university.
King's is in the top group of UK universities for research earnings, with income from grants and contracts of more than £114 million, and has anannual income of more than £369 million.
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