In this anniversary year of the publication of the classic paper proposing the double-helical structure for DNA (see, renewed attention has been drawn to the respective roles of Rosalind Franklin and Maurice Wilkins in this ground-breaking discovery: see for example Watson Fuller's Commentary “Who said 'helix'?” (Nature 424, 876–878; 2003).

Some years ago, while working in the archives of the Pasteur Institute in Paris, I came across a document that may be of interest in relation to the appropriateness of the inclusion of Wilkins as a recipient of the 1962 Nobel prize for this work.

The document is a letter, dated 31 December 1961, and an accompanying overview of the DNA work, from Crick to his friend Jacques Monod, evidently intended to provide Monod with material for preparing a nomination letter for the Nobel. (Monod, who was to earn a Nobel prize himself in 1965 for his work on gene regulation, was a senior researcher at the Pasteur Institute.)

Crick writes about Wilkins as follows: “On the matter of Maurice Wilkins. I think his contribution was two-fold. He initiated the careful X-ray work on DNA, and since 1953 he has done numerous extensive, accurate and painstaking studies on it. It is true that he has worked rather slowly, but then hardly anybody else has done anything. However, the data which really helped us to obtain the structure was mainly obtained by Rosalind Franklin, who died a few years ago. It should also be remembered that for a whole year Jim and I tried to get Maurice to solve the structure by our approach, without success. It was only after we learnt of Pauling's structure that we asked and obtained Maurice's permission to work on the problem. Nevertheless, for the last eight years Maurice has done all the hard work on the problem and that should be recognized.”

Although he thus clearly gives priority to Franklin, Crick in his overview credits Wilkins with initiating “the only serious X-ray work on DNA up to 1953”, with being “the first person to realize that DNA might be helical”, and with carrying out the bulk of the work on DNA from the time that Franklin left King's College to work with John Bernal at Birkbeck.

Judging from the handwritten revisions and editorial changes made by Monod, which can be clearly seen, it seems that Monod drew directly from Crick's information when he wrote his letter of nomination. It also seems that Crick himself thought that the significant body of work produced by Wilkins — before and after Franklin's crucial contribution — merited his inclusion in the nomination.