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Heroes of Science Episode 2

Professor Maurice Wilkins was quite an interesting and impressive character.

The person who sticks out in my mind the most as, I guess, an unsung hero, is Maurice Wilkins.  Because when you ask people in the street who won the Nobel Prize for the discovery of the double helix structure of DNA, they say ‘That’s easy.  It was Crick and Watson.’  And that is the correct answer, but it’s incomplete because there was a third person in that team and his name was Maurice Wilkins.  And, for all of my education, I didn’t really know that there was a third person in that prize list. 

Professor Maurice Wilkins was quite an interesting and impressive character.  And I came across him because a friend’s father was explaining to me his story, that this guy was still at King’s [College] as an emeritus professor, and sort of tucked away in some small office seeing out his retirement as an emeritus professor, really.  And I went to find him, as I used to work for a student newspaper.  And I climbed up these stairs into this office, which is the sort of thing which only a British university could do, which is to stick an emeritus professor who is a Nobel laureate – and not only a Nobel laureate but a Nobel laureate who is partly responsible for one of the most significant discoveries of the 20th century – stick him in a back office with a view of a brick wall, with a rusting model of DNA on his shelf.  And I found him and I talked to him. 

And his story, I think, is incredible really, as a voyage in its own right.  He was a student of Lawrence Bragg: Lawrence Bragg himself the youngest person ever to win a Nobel Prize, I think, at the age of 25, with his father, in the field of X-ray crystallography.  And Wilkins then becomes a physicist specialising in this field.  But World War II intervenes, and he becomes recruited into the Manhattan Project and has a very minor role in uranium isotope separation in Berkeley, but returns from that experience really unable to assuage the guilt he felt at having been part of this very terrible weapon.  And so, he tells me, or he told me at the time, that that led him to go from physics, which he regarded now as the science of death, to biophysics, which he regarded as the science of life.  And I was quite interested in that flip over from physics to medicine: medical science.  And he took the x-ray crystallography and its massive resolving power and turned it onto these bio-molecules, and was instrumental, I feel, in unravelling the double helix.

And so here’s a man whose life story involves being involved in the weaponising of nuclear micro-fission and the discovery of the double helix structure of DNA.  So that’s not bad for a CV of your life.  And yet he sort of lived much more anonymously than Crick and Watson, and he’s a less flamboyant character, complicated character.  But, for me, it spoke a lot to me at the time, as an impressionable undergraduate, as someone studying physics who then later went on to study medicine.  And so I think he, of all the people who should have more recognition, he’s top of my list.