King's College London
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DNA: the King's story

Maurice Wilkins (1916-2004)

Maurice WilkinsMaurice WilkinsMaurice Wilkins was born in 1916, moved to Britain as a child from his native New Zealand and attended King Edward’s School, Birmingham, and St John's College, Cambridge, where he graduated with a degree in Physics in 1938.

He transferred to Birmingham University where he was research assistant under John Randall studying luminescence and electron movement in crystals, obtaining his PhD in 1940 on the thermal stability of trapped electrons in phosphors.

Wilkins played an active part in World War Two, most notably in mass spectrography of uranium isotopes and as part of the Manhattan Project to build the first atomic bomb, an experience like those of many participants that left him both with a life-long commitment to the peaceful use of science and singular appreciation of the value of collaborative research in the process of scientific discovery.

Maurice Wilkins lecturingMaurice Wilkins lecturingWilkins was reunited with John Randall at St Andrews University after the war when he became interested in the emerging science of biophysics, in no small part due to a reading of Erwin Schrodinger's seminal book What is Life? This had a profound influence upon a generation of scientists, including Francis Crick.

Wilkins followed Randall to King's in 1946 to work at the new Biophysics Research Unit set up by Randall and the Royal Society and Medical Research Council to investigate the structure of living material.

His early work at King's was concerned with the genetic effects of ultrasound but, drawing on the pioneering work of Torbjörn Caspersson and Jean Brachet, he and Bill Seeds began studies to measure nucleic acids using techniques of ultraviolet dichromism and interference microscopy.

Wilkins receives Nobel PrizeWilkins receives Nobel PrizeBuilding on the work of William Astbury in the 1930s and 40s that had produced blurred x-ray diffraction pictures of DNA, Wilkins began to investigate its structure with Raymond Gosling using diffraction equipment set up by Randall and Gosling to study ram spermatozoa.

They obtained good pictures with moist samples of DNA supplied by Rudolf Signer and Hans Schwander.

Maurice Wilkins and Pope John Paul IIMaurice Wilkins and Pope John Paul IIWilkins remained at the heart of scientific enquiry into DNA at King's College and together with Watson and Crick he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1962 in recognition of the groundbreaking studies of a decade earlier. Wilkins was Deputy Director of the Biophysics Unit, 1955-1970, and subsequently Director until 1980.

During this time he was appointed Professor of Biophysics, 1970-1981, and was instrumental in the establishment of a Department of Biophysics at King's and the relocation of the Unit to new laboratories in Drury Lane.

Maurice Wilkins cartoonMaurice Wilkins cartoonHe was made Emeritus Professor of Biophysics in 1981 and retained a keen interest in the teaching and research of biophysics at King’s and more generally in the ethics of science.

With this in mind, Wilkins was a member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and during the 1980s was active in the Pugwash organization which was set up by scientists to help prevent nuclear war.

He was elected the first President of the influential British Society for Social Responsibility in Science, in the 1970s. The Society's meetings were an opportunity for scientists to address contemporary issues such as in-vitro vertilization used in the creation of test-tube babies.

At King's he also launched an academic programme entitled 'The Social Impact of the Biosciences' to improve awareness by scientists of the ethical consequences of their research.

Maurice Wilkins died in 2004.

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