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Maurice Wilkins (1916-2004)

The physicist Maurice Wilkins used X-ray diffraction to investigate the molecular structure of DNA. This work was important for the discovery of the double-helix structure. Wilkins had studied physics at Cambridge. During the Second World War he developed radar screens in Birmingham before participating in the Manhattan Project to build the atomic bomb. He was so shocked by the use of two atomic bombs on civilian targets in Japan that after the war he became one of many physicists who moved over to biology - Francis Crick was another.

Wilkins began to use microscopy and X-rays to investigate the molecular basis of heredity. The X-ray diffraction studies of DNA, which Wilkins carried out together with Rosalind Franklin, were used by Francis Crick and James Watson in their work on the structure of DNA. In 1962, Wilkins, Crick and Watson received the Nobel Prize in Medicine for the discovery of the double-helix structure.

Related Themes and Topics


S de Chadarevian, Designs For Life: Molecular Biology After World War II (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002)

M Wilkins, The Third Man of the Double Helix: The Autobiography of Maurice Wilkins (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003)



Deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA). The material of all living organisms, it stores the information, or blueprints, about every cell and is located in the genes. It is made up of two strands which form a double helix and are linked with hydrogen bonds. It was first described in 1953 by Francis Crick and James Watson.