20 July 2015
ByAppeared in BioNews 811
BBC Radio 4, Monday 24 June 2015
Presented by Dr Kevin Fong
Maurice Wilkins was, in fact, the third recipient of the 1962 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine for the discovery of the double helix structure of DNA, along with the far-better remembered James Watson and Francis Crick.
He is also the subject of a recent episode of BBC Radio 4's Science Stories, presented by Kevin Fong, which aimed to tell the story of the overlooked Wilkins, moving through his work during the Second World War, to the famous discovery of the double helix, and finally to the MI5 investigation into his supposed communist sympathies.
'What does it take to be remembered well?' asked Fong at the start of the programme. What, indeed? Watson and Crick are as close to household names as 20th-century scientists get, and even the X-ray crystallographer Rosalind Franklin (the other person involved in the discovery of the double helix) is, oddly enough, remembered now for having been forgotten at the time.
It was refreshing to hear about a Nobel Laureate who has not been remembered, rather than about the controversies that seem to follow those who were (Watson in particular might have been better off with a little less fame). I listened with interest to the opening section, detailing how, after working on the Manhattan Project to produce the first nuclear weapons, Wilkins was so appalled at the use to which they were put that he was converted from 'the science of death to the science of life'.
Unfortunately for Fong and Wilkins, it began to seem like the structure of the programme itself was in danger of becoming the weak link. Thirty minutes is hardly enough time to do justice to a story as rich as Wilkins', and this led to a slightly unfocused approach: were we learning about the man himself, the research he carried out or the mystery of why he is not well remembered?
As it turned out, all three aspects got short shrift. The eventual conclusion to why Wilkins never became well known is distinctly anticlimactic. Anyone unfamiliar with the Manhattan Project or the structure of DNA is likely to be lost early on – but this scattergun approach does mean that everyone can find a part of the tale to interest them.
More problematic was the long section in the middle of the programme discussing the work which led to the Nobel Prize itself. Fong goes through, at some length, the X-ray diffraction pictures developed by Rosalind Franklin and used by Watson and Crick to deduce the structure of DNA. Without the pictures to hand, I felt my attention begin to slide. When they moved on to discuss, again at length, the scale model of the DNA molecule, constructed for study by Wilkins, I found myself wondering whether the producers had rather missed the point of a radio documentary.
The programme came alive for me later with clips taken from interviews with Wilkins himself, before his death in 2004, as well as an interview with his son, who gave an insight into his relationships and attitudes towards his work. His openness and willingness to share information and resources, despite a shy, retiring nature give a glimpse of how he managed to achieve what he did - and also why he came into conflict with the very different personality of Franklin.
Wilkins comes across as a remnant of an earlier age of science, with a strong focus on collaboration and the sharing of data, and disdain for the competition and intellectual-property approach that has become more apparent in modern research.
There are better primers on the discovery of the double helix, and certainly the controversy over the input and recognition of Franklin compared to the other scientists has been covered more thoroughly before (although rarely with much attention given to Wilkins' point of view). However, like the other programmes in the Science Stories series it tells an interesting story, rarely told, and for me that was enough.
It doesn't take much for me to recommend a free Radio 4 programme about science and available eternally for download, and I certainly learned enough from this one that I can happily do so. Arm yourself with Google image search (try 'Photograph 51' and 'Wilkins DNA model') and give it a go.