Wilkins, Maurice Hugh Frederick (1916–2004)
Maurice Wilkins won the 1962 Nobel Prize in medicine or physiology with JAMES DEWEY WATSON and FRANCIS HARRY COMPTON CRICK for their discovery of the molecular structure of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA). Specifically Wilkins contributed the X-ray diffraction photography used to create the model of DNA.
Wilkins was born on December 15, 1916, in Pongoroa, New Zealand, to Eveline Constance Jane Whittaker and the physician Edgar Henry Wilkins, both Irish immigrants. Wilkins married Patricia Ann Chidgey in 1959, and together the couple had four children—two daughters and two sons.
From the age of six Wilkins attended King Edward's School in Birmingham, England, and at St. John's College at Cambridge University he earned his B.A. in physics in 1938. Wilkins advanced to the University of Birmingham, where he earned his Ph.D. in 1940 with a dissertation on the electron-trap theory of phosphorescence and thermo-luminescence.
While he was pursuing his doctorate the Ministry of Home Security and Aircraft Production had already corraled Wilkins to contribute to the preparations for war with research on how to improve radar screens. Wilkins transferred his wartime efforts to the University of California at Berkeley, where he participated in the Manhattan Project separating uranium isotopes for the atomic bomb.
John T. Randall invited Wilkins to lecture in physics at St. Andrews University in Scotland after the war in 1945. Wilkins's reading of ERWIN SCHRÖDINGER's What Is Life? The Physical Aspects of the Living Cell prompted him to consider the intersection between physics and biology, or biophysics.
The next year Randall established the Medical Research Council Biophysics Unit at King's College in London with Wilkins's assistance. This assistant's role became official in 1955, when Wilkins was appointed deputy director of the unit. He then became director between 1970 and 1972. Two years later he served as the director of the Medical Research Council's Neurobiology Unit, a position he retained until 1980. Wilkins served simultaneously at King's College as a professor of molecular biology from 1963 to 1970, when he transferred to the biophysics department as its head; in 1981 he became a professor emeritus.
In 1946 researchers at the Rockefeller Institute in New York identified DNA as the genetic building blocks of life. Wilkins devoted himself wholeheartedly to the study of DNA, specifically working to determine its structure. Wilkins discovered that DNA lent itself perfectly to X-ray diffraction photography. In 1951 the X-ray diffraction expert ROSALIND ELSIE FRANKLIN joined Wilkins, though the pair disagreed over the apparent helical appearance of DNA. Some reports suggest that Wilkins's sharing of X-ray photographs with Watson and Crick occurred without Franklin's knowledge. Nevertheless Wilkins and Franklin's X-ray photographs proved vital to the discovery of the structure of DNA. After this discovery Wilkins devoted his efforts to understanding the structure of DNA's relative, ribonucleic acid, or RNA, which he showed to have a helical structure like DNA's.
Besides the Nobel Prize, Wilkins's achievements have been recognized with the 1960 Albert Lasker Award from the American Public Health Association as well as his 1959 election as a fellow of the Royal Society of King's College. More importantly, Wilkins served his political conscience as the president of the British Society for Social Responsibility in Science. Wilkins died on October 5, 2004. At the time of his death, he was still a member of the faculty at King's College in London, where he had worked since 1946.