Maurice Hugh Frederick Wilkins Biography (1916-)


Maurice Wilkins was born on December 15, 1916, at Pongaroa, New Zealand. At the age of six, he was brought to England. His career began as a nuclear physicist. Wilkins earned a Ph.D. from the University of Birmingham in 1940. During World War II, he applied his background toward the development of the atomic bomb. After the war ended, Wilkins was troubled by the application of the atomic bomb and focused on solving biological problems with physical methods.He initially studied deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) because it was a relativelylarge molecule that could be easily isolated for use in a wide variety of studies.

In the 1940s, scientists had yet to realize the importance of DNA as a carrier molecule of life's genetic code. One day, Wilkins noticed that, when a gelpreparation of DNA was touched with a glass stirring rod and observed under the microscope, a thin fiber of DNA was drawn out. This chance observation implied that the molecules of the DNA were arranged in some regular fashion. Wilkins and one of his colleagues, Rosalind Elsie Franklin, developed X-ray diffraction photographs of DNA. They did this by studying how light patterns bendor diffract when crystalline materials are exposed to X-rays. From the photos, Wilkins was able to determine the distance across the double helix and thelength of one turn of this helix.

Wilkins proceeded to demonstrate that the structure was not merely an artifact resulting in the isolation of DNA from the cell. X-ray diffraction photographs of complete biological systems closely resembled those taken from isolated DNA. This proved that DNA had the same organization both before and after isolation. These small bits of evidence, when combined with chemical data, confirmed that DNA was shaped like a twisted ladder, or double helix. Franklin and Wilkins also showed that the phosphate groups of the DNA were located on the outside of the molecule. Wilkins later showed the X-ray diffraction photosto James Dewey Watson, who was working with Francis Crick to develop a complete model of the DNA structure at Cambridge University. Watson was excited about the photos, because they confirmed his and Crick's proposed DNA structure. Watson and Crick incorporated the work of Wilkins, Franklin, and other scientists to ultimately build a series of accurate models. They eventually usedall the known features of DNA to produce a model that gave the same diffraction pattern that Wilkens founded.

After these findings were published in 1953, Wilkins continued to develop hisX-ray diffraction patterns to demonstrate the unique character of Watson andCrick's model. He also applied X-ray techniques to help determine the structure of ribonucleic acid (RNA). In 1962, Wilkins was awarded the Nobel Prize in physiology and medicine along with James Watson and Francis Crick. Wilkins's work was used as a guide to develop the DNA structure and later helped to prove that the structure proposed by Watson and Crick was correct.

Recent Updates

October 5, 2004: Wilkins died on October 5, 2004, in London, England.He was 87. Source: New York Times,, October 11,2004.

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