Royal Society Publishing

Maurice Hugh Frederick Wilkins. 15 December 1916 — 5 October 2004

Struther Arnott, T.W.B. Kibble, Tim Shallice

Elected FRS 1959


Maurice Hugh Frederick Wilkins was the ‘Third man of the double helix’ according to the publishers who were allowed to foist this title on his late–written autobiography. Certainly it is for his role in the discovery of the duplex secondary structure of DNA that he will be remembered. It might be argued that he was the first man, rather than the third, for it was his successful revival of X–ray diffraction studies of DNA and their earliest product in 1950, a pattern of a well–oriented and polycrystalline DNA of unprecedented quality, that allowed him to conclude almost immediately that the basic framework of the genetic material was simple and symmetrical, and that the symmetrical structure took the form of a helix. This same pattern, displayed at a conference in Naples six months later, was the major inspiration for the involvement of J. D. Watson (ForMemRS 1981) in modelling DNA structure in collaboration with F. H. C. Crick (FRS 1959). Crick was a personal friend of Maurice's and was more involved with studies of proteins until the progress of Maurice's research programme and Watson's enthusiastic presence in Cambridge convinced him to put nucleic acids first. The carefully crafted citation for the 1960 Lasker Award, which these three men shared in 1960, put Maurice's name first and accurately referred to ‘… the painstaking x–ray diffraction studies of Wilkins that provided a most important clue that was pursued in an ingenious fashion and to a logical conclusion by Crick and Watson…’. Maurice's diffraction studies of DNA were not only the alpha but also the omega of the double helix because it was left to him to remedy a major flaw in the original (1953) Watson–Crick conjecture.