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Last Updated: Wednesday, 6 October, 2004, 11:38 GMT 12:38 UK
Science mourns DNA pioneer Wilkins
Maurice Wilkins examines a DNA 50 commemorative coin (PA)
Maurice Wilkins examines one of DNA 50 commemorative coins from last year
DNA pioneer Professor Maurice Wilkins has died.

Nobel Laureate Wilkins, 87, played an important role in the discovery of the double helix structure of DNA, the molecule that carries our "life code".

He was awarded the prize in 1962 with Francis Crick and James Watson; their co-discoverer was Rosalind Franklin.

Professor Wilkins' death comes just two months after that of Francis Crick. His autobiography, The Third Man Of The Double Helix, was published last year.

James Watson, the only scientist involved in the DNA project who is still living, said in a statement: "Wilkins was a very intelligent scientist with a very deep personal concern that science be used to benefit society.

"This started in his early days, when he witnessed the atrocities of war, and continued through his life. He will be sorely missed."

Vital role

Born in New Zealand in 1916, Professor Wilkins, who studied at St John's College, Cambridge, used X-ray diffraction techniques to probe the structure of DNA.

In landmark studies that he undertook at King's College London (KCL) in 1950, Wilkins' group obtained images of DNA that were of unprecedented clarity.

Professor Wilkins was a towering figure, one of the greatest scientists of the 20th Century
Professor Rick Trainor, KCL
This galvanised the belief of the young American geneticist, Jim Watson, that the emerging X-ray data would allow the mystery of life's code to be unravelled.

The success of Crick and Watson in elucidating the DNA structure is universally known and acknowledged.

But its complete dependence on the results obtained first by Professor Wilkins and then, critically, by the brilliant experimentalist Rosalind Franklin, is still commonly overlooked.

Intensely private

Maurice Wilkins was an intensely private and self-effacing man who was much loved by colleagues and students, KCL said in a statement released on Wednesday.

Maurice Wilkins (KCL)
Maurice Wilkins with one of the cameras he developed specially for X-ray diffraction studies
He hated pomposity and was particularly proud of his involvement with the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, it added.

"Maurice was a central figure in one of the greatest scientific discoveries of the twentieth century, but his extreme modesty allowed others to share the prize," said Matt Ridley, author of Nature Via Nurture.

"It was he who first obtained an X-ray image of DNA, he who taught Francis Crick about DNA, his photograph that inspired James Watson, and his suggestion that led to the recruitment of Rosalind Franklin to Kings College.

"And later, it was he who finally proved the double helix correct."

Watson and Crick's 1953 model Courtesy Science Museum, London

Lord May, the president of the Royal Society, the UK's academy of science, commented: "We are all greatly saddened to learn of the death yesterday of Maurice Wilkins.

"While Watson and Crick have rightly been recognised across the world for their contribution, the roles of Wilkins and Franklin, which were crucial, have not always been fully acknowledged outside the scientific community."

Professor Rick Trainor, the Principal of KCL, added: "Professor Wilkins was a towering figure, one of the greatest scientists of the 20th Century. He will be much missed."

Professor Wilkins died in hospital on Tuesday surrounded by his family.

These were some of your tributes to Maurice Wilkins

I have just begun a course of study which is based out of the Franklin-Wilkins building here at King's College. While I am not proud of the early history of the college, which was set up largely in an attempt to stem the progressive tide of secularism and non-discrimination in education, I am certainly proud of, and grateful for, the great legacy of people like Maurice Wilkins and his peers. The furtherance of knowledge, free from bias or wishful thinking, is amongst the greatest of human endeavours. I will be raising a glass to Maurice Wilkins tonight.
Katya Whitton, London, UK

I was privileged to have met him years ago, when we were looking at the potential effects of nuclear tests on British servicemen. He was typically self effacing, and we chatted every now and then during that period without him ever mentioning his Nobel. I sometimes feel that he would have said more about himself if I had simply been a little more intrusive.
Dr James Thompson, London, UK

I feel privileged to be a PhD student in the laboratory & research group that evolved from Maurice's original KCL group with Rosalind Franklin. My supervisor was a friend and tells me Maurice was a modest, unassuming and friendly man. Without his altruistic rationality and wisdom, Watson and Crick would not have been allowed to see the legendary "Photograph 51", which, as every schoolboy knows, provided the crucial data to compliment their unproven structure. Few scientific discoveries have such a gripping tale and marvellous players!
Alex Taylor, King's College London, UK

New Zealand is a small country with a small population and so the brightest of our bright carve internationally recognised careers in the major universities of the world. Maurice was one of New Zealand's brightest stars whose achievements were known to but a select few of his countrymen. Of interest, Maurice Wilkins attended Havelock Primary School some years later than Ernest Rutherford which may have stimulated his interest in science.
Ron Naylor, Christchurch, New Zealand

The discovery of DNA as the "code of life" was made the year I was born, in 1953. I read a textbook on DNA by James Watson and went on to study genetics as part of my graduate training. I fully understand the mindset and process that goes into making discoveries like this: the dogged determination to solve a mystery, the late nights, long hours, the insights at some odd moment, and then trying to convince a stubborn scientific community. They say Dr Wilkins was loved by his students and colleagues. It's a shame I never met the man because that temperament is all too rare among the rather dour bio-geneticists of today. A modest but great man has passed, but his legacy lives on.
Jeremy, Atlanta, USA

Here is a small thank you to the very modest man who made the most vital discovery about humans in the 20th Century. I know he will be put down in history as one of the most talented scientists ever. May he rest in peace and god bless him.
Zoe Wong, Keele England

I am deeply sorry to hear the loss of such a precious person. He will always be in our hearts.
Tuba Sural, Boston,USA

I remember working with Professor Wilkins on Saturday mornings back in the late 1950s, helping him dig up Bootlace Fungus in his garden. One of the highlights was drinking ground coffee and eating digestive biscuits. With deepest sympathy.
Alan James, Bexley , Kent

Professor Wilkins' going home leaves sadness in many hearts but his stature in science will always be an inspiration to many of us budding in the fields of genetics. Though I never met him I was very elated the first time I learned about the other two greats in the unravelling of the DNA mystery. His humility allowed others to share in the glory of discovery and this is the big lesson to me personally. God bless him.
Richard Mulwa, Urbana, USA

Another giant sadly gone. Nevertheless, his and Francis Crick's legacy will live on long after we are all gone.
Paul Gitsham, Manchester, UK

I am deeply sorry having learnt the passing away of Prof Wilkins. It's unbelievable that such precious and rare people amidst us have to die.

For the development of science in this world, the ball now is in the court of the living scientists who must strive hard in coming up with more discoveries that could help people, especially in the developing countries, in honour of the departed don.
Duncan Mboyah, Nairobi, Kenya

I am a biology teacher currently working for the government and seconded to the EU Civil Service. Whilst my own contributions to furthering biological understanding are modest, I can retrace my own passion for the subject of biology to a handful of inspiring characters. I was first made aware of the work of Franklin and Wilkins through the Horizon special "Life Story" first screened in the mid 1980s when I was still studying A-Level biology. Subsequent study and reading has revealed to me the pivotal role of Maurice Wilkins (and Rosalind Franklin) in the discovery of the structure of DNA and elucidation of its function as the hereditary material. He was a brilliant experimental scientist, but perhaps more importantly a wonderful teacher and thoroughly charming individual. I can think of no better role model for aspiring scientists and teachers alike. Thank you Maurice and I would urge the BBC to re-screen "Life Story" as a fitting tribute to the now extinct life and works of Wilkins, Franklin and Crick.
Paul Spiring, Karlsruhe - Germany

I met Maurice Wilkins in 1969, when he came to Brighton to help us set up the Sussex University branch of the British Society for Social Responsibility in Science. Despite his fame (his Nobel prize was then only a few years old) he was self-effacing and charming in his dealings with undergraduate students. He had such a broad understanding of science and its ramifications -- not just his own esoteric studies -- that he inspired me and many others to find careers in science which would give to the planet and not just take from it. RIP Dr Wilkins, and thank you.
Andrew Clifton, Buffalo, New York

I commiserate with the science world on reading about the death of Professor Maurice Wilkins. For the development of science in this world, it is now left for the living scientists who must strive hard in coming up with more discoveries, especially on the HIV/Aids epidemic in honour of the departed professor.
Akinlolu Oluwamuyiwa, Lagos, Nigeria

He was one of the gentlest, wisest and most self-effacing of men. This was made all the more extraordinary by what he had achieved. The year I spent learning from him changed my life and taught me all I will ever need to know about compassion and humility and yes, greatness.

He was a clever man, but beyond all of that, he was one the kindest that I have ever known. He was truly great in every sense of the word. He was truly human.
Paul Ong, Leamington Spa

Maurice Wilkins was not only a great scientist but also a man deeply concerned with the social implications of his science. For many years he was president of the British Society for Social Responsibility in Science. He will be mourned by many as a man of principle as much as a man of science.
Professor Dorothy Griffiths, London

We and generations to come will miss and admire this Gentleman and an influential scientific figure in his field. God bless him for the achievements he made to mankind.
Dr.Sabah Al-Abbas, Basrah, Iraq


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