Codebreakers: Makers of Modern Genetics

Maurice Wilkins and Medical Research Council Biophysics Unit archive

Maurice Wilkins began the studies on the crystalline structure of DNA that ultimately led to the discovery of the double helix by James Watson and Francis Crick.

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Collection overview

Although Maurice Wilkins (1916-2004) shared the Nobel Prize for the discovery, he has gone down in history as the 'third man' of DNA, while Watson and Crick have garnered most of the limelight. Few realise that the Cambridge pair did no experimental work on DNA at all, and that it was Wilkins at King's College London who initiated the analysis of fibres of very-high-quality DNA by a variety of techniques. It was meeting Wilkins and seeing his early X-ray images that prompted Watson to work on DNA. After Watson and Crick's ground-breaking article on the model appeared in 'Nature' in 1953, Wilkins carried out the experimental refinement of the structure that was necessary to convince the world it was correct.

Signer DNA fibres

Signer DNA fibres mounted on wire for X-ray study,1950
from the Maurice Wilkins papers
K/PP178/2/23

The papers in this digital archive provide much of the evidence to confirm Wilkins's pivotal role in the discovery. In addition to his own papers the collection incorporates records of the Medical Research Council's Biophysics Unit, in which Wilkins was one of the leading researchers. These include X-ray refraction images of DNA taken between 1949 and 1965, which document the technical advances needed to sharpen the images and produce the critical measurements. Accompanying them is a wealth of notebooks and diagrams suggesting how the images might be interpreted.

The story of the DNA discovery is about personalities as much as science, and Wilkins is an intriguing figure. Although his role is now somewhat eclipsed in the popular mind by the reputation of Crick and Watson, this digital archive documents the crucial contribution to the discovery of Wilkins and his co-workers at King's, as demonstrated for example by their two papers published in 'Nature' in 1953 alongside the famous Crick and Watson paper. Wilkins's reserve may have made it difficult for him to resolve the misunderstanding that arose between him and one of these co-workers, Rosalind Franklin, about their respective roles in the DNA research. Yet he welcomed the interest of Watson and Crick, shared ideas and even data with them, and was magnanimous when they scooped him. His letters covering the period, which also form part of this collection, are frank and discursive, and shed exceptional light on the exchange of ideas not only between Cambridge and King's but with scientists further afield.

Profile

Maurice Hugh Frederick Wilkins's undoubted intellect was hampered at times by his reserve and self-doubt, which he put down partly to the early childhood experience of being uprooted from New Zealand, where he was born in 1916, for relocation to an England he at first found strange and unfriendly. He sought solace in making model aeroplanes and telescopes, and made an early choice of career as a practical research scientist. He read physics at Cambridge and then completed a PhD at Birmingham.

X-ray diffraction

Electron microscopy photograph of DNA and RNA, c. 1950
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Having worked on the Manhattan Project to develop the atomic bomb during World War II, Wilkins decided to apply his skills as a physicist to the study of biology. He was one of the first to join John Randall, who founded a new biophysics unit at King's College London in 1947 with support from the Medical Research Council. Wilkins remained at King's for the rest of his career, becoming in 1970 director of the unit, where the techniques that were developed for the study of DNA were applied to a number of other biological structures.

A man with a strong sense of moral purpose and social justice, Wilkins's wartime experience informed his opposition to nuclear weapons for the rest of his life.

Despite his objections to Watson's book 'The Double Helix', he argued that accounts of science should include the motives and feelings of those involved. He was also convinced that scientists should have a sense of responsibility about the impact of their discoveries on society. Towards the end of his life he put his views on life and science into his autobiography, under the title 'The Third Man of the Double Helix': it was not a title of his own choosing, but he bowed to the wishes of his publisher.

Originals held by... 

This material has been provided by King's College London College Archives where original documents can be consulted.

I think you're a couple of old rogues… But there is no good grousing - I think it's a very exciting notion and who the hell got [the DNA structure] isn't what matters.

Maurice Wilkins, letter to Francis Crick, 18 March 1953

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In The Timeline

1950: Maurice Wilkins begins to study DNA

Maurice Wilkins begins to study DNA

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