Maurice Wilkins: Physicist and Molecular Biologist
Maurice Hugh Frederick Wilkins was born on December 15, 1916, in Pongaroa, New Zealand. His father, Edgar Henry Wilkins, was a medical doctor, and his mother, Eveline Rosa Wilkins, was a schoolteacher. The family moved to England when Maurice was six years old. Growing up, Wilkins showed a keen interest in science and mathematics.
Wilkins attended King Edward’s School in Birmingham and later studied physics at St. John’s College, University of Cambridge. He completed his bachelor’s degree in 1938. Subsequently, he pursued a Ph.D. in physics, focusing on molecular spectroscopy under the supervision of John T. Randall.
World War II and Radar Research:
During World War II, Wilkins contributed to the war effort by working on the development of radar technology. He was involved in crucial research that helped improve the accuracy of radar systems used by the British military. This wartime experience marked a significant phase in his scientific career.
Post-War Research and X-ray Crystallography:
After the war, Wilkins continued his research in the field of physics. He became interested in X-ray crystallography, a technique that uses X-rays to determine the three-dimensional structure of a crystalline material. In 1948, he joined the Biophysics Unit at King’s College London.
Discovery of DNA Structure:
At King’s College, Wilkins began studying the structure of DNA using X-ray crystallography. In 1951, he obtained high-quality DNA fibers that allowed for detailed X-ray diffraction images. Wilkins’ work laid the foundation for understanding the structure of DNA.
Collaboration with Rosalind Franklin:
Wilkins collaborated with Rosalind Franklin, a talented X-ray crystallographer, at King’s College. However, their working relationship became strained, leading to misunderstandings and conflicts. Franklin’s X-ray images, known as Photograph 51, were crucial in deciphering the structure of DNA.
James Watson and Francis Crick:
In 1953, James Watson and Francis Crick at the University of Cambridge successfully proposed the double helix structure of DNA. They utilized Franklin’s and Wilkins’ data, along with other sources, to formulate their groundbreaking model. The discovery was a turning point in molecular biology.
Later Career and Contributions:
After the DNA discovery, Wilkins continued his research in molecular biology and biophysics. He explored the structure of RNA and viruses. In 1962, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine alongside Francis Crick and James Watson for their contributions to the understanding of the molecular structure of nucleic acids and its significance for information transfer in living material.
Wilkins later became Professor of Molecular Biology at King’s College London and made important contributions to medical research. He was involved in the establishment of the Medical Research Council (MRC) Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge.
Honors and Legacy:
Maurice Wilkins received numerous honors and awards for his scientific contributions, including the Nobel Prize, the Copley Medal, and a knighthood. He played a crucial role in the early development of molecular biology, and his work laid the groundwork for advances in genetics and medical research. Wilkins passed away on October 5, 2004, leaving behind a legacy of pioneering contributions to the understanding of DNA structure and molecular biology.