Maurice Wilkins, the third man of the double helix

History is peppered with stories, legends and tales. And as in all of them, any biography of a person of international relevance, such as the one we are dealing with today, is full of anecdotes, joys and sorrows and betrayals. Recognizing all his valuable contributions, the life of Maurice Wilkins is marked by destiny: the one that led him to work with Rosalind Franklin, of whom we will speak in another article, and gave him the key to his discoveries, so important for the history of science.

Maurice Wilkins was born in 1916 in New Zealand, into a progressive and unitarian Anglo-Irish family. They return to England when he was only six years old.

From an early age he began to show an interest in science, microscopes and telescopes, and a curious ability to build tools and instruments. Later, he graduated in Physics at Cambridge University and did his PhD in Birmingham, closely tutored by John Randall, with whom he established a strong working relationship.

World War II abruptly interrupted Wilkins’ research, as his department was tasked with perfecting the manufacture of radar. While Randall and his colleague Harry Boot were developing the magnetron, a device that transforms electrical energy into electromagnetic energy in the form of microwaves, Maurice Wilkins was sent to a laboratory in California to work on isotope separation using the mass spectrograph, fractionating uranium: in this way he went on to work on the atomic bomb.

Once the war was over, Wilkins devoted himself to teaching and research in different universities in the United Kingdom. It is specifically in the medical research department of Kings College, and under the direction of John Randall, that he begins to investigate biophysics and genetic material. Using ultraviolet microscopes, he began his studies with X-ray diffraction and designed cameras and devices to differentiate DNA fibers.

In 1950 he finally manages to obtain the first clear photographs showing the A structure of DNA (a structural type of DNA that appears in artificially created conditions), and with the arrival of Rosalind Franklin in 1951 to the department, Randall assigns him the study on the structure of DNA, since he had already made his respective progress and research on the subject and had mastered the X-ray technique. This makes Wilkins feel displaced and he stops advancing in what could have been a parallel or collaborative study with Franklin on the structure of DNA.


When Watson and Crick meet with the department to discuss their progress, Wilkins shows Franklin’s results without Rosalind’s knowledge: discoveries and images of the diffraction of B-DNA (the predominant form of DNA in cells) that Watson and Crick find particularly interesting, and from these they propose their structural model of DNA, without actually doing any experiments themselves. Wilkins, Watson and Crick received the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine in 1962.

The figure of Rosalind Franklin and her key role in this discovery will be discussed in a separate chapter, because without her contribution, none of this would have been possible.

Maurice Wilkins published his autobiography in 2003 entitled “The Third Man of the Double Helix”. In it he would talk about the whole process of the discovery of the structure of DNA and his subsequent findings. He died a year later, in 2004.