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Great Scientists

Maurice Wilkins

1916 - 2004

Maurice Wilkins

Maurice Wilkins, 1916 - 2004, molecular biologist, was 'the third man of the double helix', as his biography title declares. Born in New Zealand, but did most of his professional work in England, Wilkins shared the Nobel Prize with Crick and Watson.

  • Nationality
  • New Zealand

  • Subject
  • Biology, molecular science

  • Fields
  • Physics

  • Distinctions
  • 1962 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine (with James Watson and Francis Crick) for "their discoveries concerning the molecular structure of nucleic acids and its significance for information transfer in living material".

    The Centre for Molecular Biodiscovery at the University of Auckland, was renamed the Maurice Wilkins Centre in 2006.

  • Posts
  • Founding President of the British Society for Social Responsibility in Science, 1969.

  • Publications
  • The Third Man of the Double Helix, 2003, autobiography.

  • Experiments/Discoveries
  • X-ray diffraction, DNA structure.

Wilkins was a doctorate student under Rosalind Franklin in 1953, and was at the centre of a controversy about the allocation of merit for the discovery of the DNA structure. Franklin died in 1958, and since the Nobel Prize is not awarded posthumously, Wilkins, Crick, Watson received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1962 without her.

DNA crystallography by Rosalind Franklin
DNA crystallography by Rosalind Franklin, allowed the structure of DNA to be deciphered

The fuss was all about Rosalind Franklin's x-ray crystallography photograph of the DNA helix, which Wilkins showed to Watson. This was the Eureka moment for Crick and Watson, and led them quickly to success in pinning down the 4-base structure of the elusive moecule.

Wilkins also made contributions in other fields, such as radar and isotope separation, of great help to the allied effort on both sides of the Atlantic.