Maurice Wilkins: biography and contributions of this Nobel Prize-winning biophysicist

James Dewey Watson and Francis Crick are two very important figures in the history of biology with their discovery of what DNA is. Thanks to their discoveries, they obtained the Nobel Prize for physiology or medicine in 1962, but a third name was added: Maurice Wilkins.

Wilkins was instrumental in the discovery of what DNA was, which no doubt contributed to the progress of mankind, but also got him into a controversy with researcher Rosalind Franklin.

Below we will read about the life of this researcher through a biography of Maurice Wilkins, seeing how his professional career developed and how the DNA structure controversy arose.

    Brief Biography of Maurice Hugh Frederick Wilkins

    Maurice Wilkins was a British biophysicist who received the Nobel Prize for his research in the fields of physics and biophysics., contributing to a better scientific understanding of aspects such as phosphorescence, isotope separation, optical microscopy and X-ray diffraction, and the development of radar.

    She is best known for her work at King’s College London, involved in research into the structure of DNA, which also led to a controversy with one of the most notable researchers of the last century, Rosalind Franklin.

    Small years and education

    Maurice Hugh Frederick Wilkins was born December 15, 1916 in Pongaroa, New Zealand, to a family of Irish descent.. Her father was Edgar Henry Wilkins, a physician. The family came from Dublin, where his paternal grandfather had been director of the local institute and his maternal grandfather chief of police.

    When Maurice was 6 he and his family moved to Birmingham, England, and from 1929 to 1934 he attended Wylde Green College. After passing through this educational institution, Wilkins studied at King Edward’s School, also in Birmingham.

    The young Maurice attended St John’s College, Cambridge in 1935 and subsequently majored in physics. He would also receive a Bachelor of Arts in 1938. Mark Oliphan, who was one of Wilkins’ professors in St. John, had been appointed to the chair of physics at the University of Birmingham, and had appointed John Randall as the one of his scholarship recipients. Randall would end up being Wilkins’ tutor for his doctoral thesis.

    In 1945 Randall and Wilkins published four papers for the Proceedings of the Royal Society on phosphorescence and electrons. Wilkins received his doctorate for his work in 1940.

      WWII and postwar years

      Throughout WWII Wilkins developed and improved radar screens in Birmingham, and then worked on isotope separation at the Manhattan Project at the University of California at Berkeley, during the years 1944 and 1945.

      During this time, Randall had obtained a chair of physics at the University of St. Louis. Andrews. In 1945 he asked Wilkins to go to college to work as a lecturer.

      Randall was negotiating with the British Medical Research Council (MRC) to open a lab to apply his own physics research methodology to the field of biology. As surprising as it may seem from a current point of view, the truth is that in the 1940s, combining these two disciplines was extremely new and even unthinkable. Biophysics had barely shown its presence in the scientific world and there was some reluctance to invest in it.

      The MRC told Randall that to open this lab you had to do it at another university. In 1946 Randall was appointed professor of physics in charge of the physics department at King’s College, with sufficient funding to open a biophysics unit, where he made Maurice Wilkins his deputy director. Therefore they managed to create a team of scientists specializing in both physics and biological sciences. His philosophy was to explore using as many techniques as possible in parallel, see which ones held the most promise and focus on them.

        First phase of the DNA study

        At King’s College, Wilkins devoted himself, among other things, to X-ray diffraction in sheep semen and to studying the discoveries made by Swiss scientist Rudolf Signer extracting DNA from the beef scam. Wilkins discovered that it was possible to produce thin strands from a concentrated DNA solution containing highly ordered DNA microarrays.

        Using selected bundles of these DNA strands and keeping them hydrated, Wilkins and his graduate student Raymond Gosling obtained x-ray photographs of the DNA that showed a long molecule of the substance. This X-ray diffraction work was carried out in May and June 1950. The photographs obtained were presented at a convention in Naples a year later, which sparked the interest of biologist James Watson in DNA and , almost immediately, also for Francis Crick.

        Wilkins knew that experiments on purified DNA strands would require better x-ray equipment, and for this reason, he ordered a new x-ray tube and a new microcamera. too much suggested Randall recommend Rosalind Franklin, who was doing research in Paris at the time, to study DNA. instead of protein.

          Second phase of the DNA study

          In early 1951 Franklin finally arrived in the United Kingdom. Wilkins was on vacation and missed the initial meeting where Raymond Gosling played him in front of Alex Stoles who, like Crick, would discover the mathematical foundations of how helical structures diffract x-rays.

          Little research had been done on DNA in recent months, and the new x-ray tube was not in use, waiting for Franklin to get his hands on it. Franklin ended up studying DNA, Gosling became her doctoral student, and she expected x-ray DNA diffraction to be the project.. However, Wilkins returned to the lab hoping, on the one hand, that Franklin would be his collaborator and that they would work together on the DNA project he had started.

          The confusion over the roles of Franklin and Wilkins in this project, which would later cause tension between the two researchers, is due to Randall. Randall sent a letter to Rosalind Franklin stating that she and Gosling would be solely responsible for the DNA study, but she did not notify Wilkins of her decision, and Maurice learned the contents of the letter for years after his death. .

          The tension was because Randall made Rosalind believe that Wilkins and Stokes wanted to stop working on the DNA Project and from that point on, it was Rosalind’s job. As Wilkins continued to study DNA, Franklin interpreted it as an intrusion into his new field of study, exacerbating the conflict.

          In November 1951, Wilkins found evidence that DNA in cells and purified DNA exhibit a helical structure. Maurice Wilkins met Watson and Crick and kept them informed of their findings. This information from Wilkins, along with additional data from Franklin’s research, prompted Watson and Crick to create their first molecular model of DNA, one with phosphate as the “backbone” of the molecule at the center.

          In early 1952, Wilkins began a series of experiments with cuttlefish semen. At a time, Franklin gave up his involvement in molecular DNA modeling efforts and continued his work on the detailed analysis of x-ray diffraction data..

          In the spring of the same year Franklin obtained permission from Randall to transfer his scholarship from King’s College to John Bernal’s laboratory at Birbeck College, also in London. Franklin remained at King’s College until mid-March 1953.

          In early 1953 Watson visited King’s College on Wilkins showed you a high quality B-shaped image of DNA under x-ray diffraction, now known as “photograph 51”. The The photograph was not her work, but that of Rosalind Franklin, who had taken it in March 1952. Wilkins taught this photograph without notifying its author or asking for permission.

          Knowing that Linus Pauling was also working on DNA and that he had proposed a DNA model for publication, Watson and Crick worked even harder to deduce what the structure of DNA was. Crick had access to Franklin’s DNA information. With this information, Watson and Crick published their double-stranded DNA proposal in an article in the journal Nature in April 1953., in which they admitted to being spurred on by the unpublished results of Wilkins and Franklin.

          After the 1953 articles on the double helix structure, Wilkins continued his research to establish the helical model as valid for different biological species as well as for living systems. He became Deputy Director of the MRC Biophysics Unit at King’s College in 1955, and was replaced by Randall as Unit Director from 1970 to 1972.

            Private life

            Wilkins married twice. His first wife, Ruth, was an art student he met when he was in Berkeley. They ended up divorcing and Ruth had a son by Wilkins after the divorce. Maurice Wilkins later married his second wife, Patricia Ann Chidgey, in 1959. With her he had four children: Sarah, George, Emily and William.

            Maurice Wilkins’ political views caused problems in his youth, in the years leading up to WWII. Wilkins was a peace activist and actually joined the British Anti-War Scientists Group. He was also a member of the Communist Party, although the Soviet Union’s invasion of Poland in September 1939 changed his mind.

            Because of his communist ideas, Wilkins was on the list of potential suspects for revealing atomic secrets of British intelligence in the USSR. Documents confirming this were released to the public in August 2010, showing that there was a monitoring arrangement which ended in 1953.

            He died on October 5, 2004 in London, England, at the age of 87.

            Controversy around the Nobel Prize

            Her expertise in determining the structure of DNA with Rosalind Franklin meant that when she received the Nobel Prize in 1962, she had to listen over and over to what the third man to receive this award that year should have been a woman: Rosalind Franklin. If Rosalind died of cancer in 1958, four years before the prize was awarded to her colleagues, it must also be said that she was never nominated.

            Maurice Wilkins published his autobiography in 2003, titled The Third Man of the Double Helix, a title chosen by the publisher, not him. In presenting his book, Wilkins wanted to make it clear that his main motivation for writing it was precisely to respond to accusations that he, Watson, and Crick had illegally seized Franklin’s findings. These accusations had demonized the trio, but especially him, who defined himself as “the most visible demon”.


            As a reward for his long career in the study of DNA and being practically one of the co-founders of biophysics, Maurice Wilkins received many accolades throughout his life:

            • 1959: He is elected member of the Royal Society.
            • 1964: elected member of the European Organization for Molecular Biology.
            • 1960: Receives the Albert Lasker Prize.
            • 1962: Receives the insignia of the Order of the British Empire.
            • 1962: Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, with Watson and Crick.
            • 1969-1991: President of the British Society for the Social Responsibility of Science.

            Bibliographical references

            • Wilkins, MHF (1952). “Engineering, biophysics and physics at King’s College, London: new building”. Nature. 170 (4320): 261-263. Bib code: 1952Natur.170..261W. doi: 10.1038 / 170261a0
            • Maurice Wilkins, The Third Man in the Double Helix: The Autobiography of Maurice Wilkins. Oxford University Press (ISBN 0-19-860665-6)
            • Witkowski J (2019). “The forgotten scientists who paved the way for the double helix.” Nature. 568 (7752): 308-309. doi: 10.1038 / d41586-019-01176-9

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