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Maurice Wilkins: Behind the Scenes of DNA

The "third man." Although Maurice Wilkins shared the 1962 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine with James Watson and Francis Crick, his name is not as commonly known as one of the discoverers of the structure of DNA. His autobiography is called The Third Man of the Double Helix because much of the glory went to Watson and Crick, but much of the work was done by him. In fact, if things had worked out slightly differently, the famous pair of Watson and Crick could have been the famous pair of Wilkins and Franklin.

His education. Maurice Wilkins was born in Pongaroa, New Zealand, on December 15, 1916, to Irish parents. His family moved to England when Wilkins was six years-old and he began a British education, complete with a degree in physics from the University of Cambridge. At Cambridge he received his first training in X-ray crystallography, a technique he would later use to study DNA fibers.

The bomb. After earning his Ph.D., he contributed to the war effort by improving cathode-ray screens for radar and working on the Manhattan Project. He was unhappy about his role in developing the atomic bomb, determining to make a positive impact using science. As a result, he joined the biophysics unit at St. Andrews that later moved to King's College.

DNA calling. Wilkins began studying nucleic acids and proteins via X-ray imaging. He was very successful in isolating single fibers of DNA and had already gathered some data about nucleic acid structure when Rosalind Franklin, an expert in X-ray crystallography, joined the unit.

The misunderstanding. What Wilkins did not know was that when Franklin was recruited, she was told that she would be in charge of the X-ray studies of DNA. Wilkins thought that Franklin would be his assistant. This caused tension between the pair, and their personalities only served to deepen the divide. Wilkins was relatively quiet, reserved, and non-confrontational; meanwhile, Franklin was brusque, outspoken, and well-known as a person that did not suffer fools. Unfortunately, Franklin believed Wilkins fell into the latter category, and they generally avoided each other.

The lost opportunity. If Wilkins and Franklin had cooperated better, they might have been the first to discover DNA's structure. Indeed, much of Watson and Crick's model was based on photographs taken by Wilkins and Franklin. Wilkins work was published as supporting data to the Watson-Crick model, and he went on to do much of the experimental work to prove the model correct. However, Watson and Crick exclusively became household names.

Third man out. Wilkins remained at King's College until he retired in 1981. He continued researching nucleic acid structure and used his status as Nobel Laureate as a platform to speak about ethics in science. He was also politically active, taking up the causes of famine and nuclear disarmament until his death on October 6, 2004.
This page appears in the eBook Essentials of Genetics, Unit 1.3

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