Maurice Wilkins, the scientist who shared a Nobel Prize with Francis Crick and James Watson for working out the structure of DNA, has died. Wilkins was awarded the prize in 1962, following his work at King's College London, in which he used X-ray techniques to show that the DNA molecule is a double helix. King's, where Wilkins was still a member of staff, said that the scientist died in hospital on 5 October, surrounded by his family.
Wilkins was born in New Zealand in 1916, and studied physics at St John's College, Cambridge in the UK. His autobiography, entitled 'The Third Man of the Double Helix', was published last year. In the 1950s, he worked at the Medical Research Council Biophysics Unit at Kings, where he developed the use of a technique called X-ray fibre diffraction. Along with Rosalind Franklin, who died in 1958, he used it to produce the images of crystallised DNA that were crucial to working out its structure.
'If it hadn't been for the X-ray data that resulted from Wilkins' work, Watson and Crick wouldn't have been able to pinpoint the structure of DNA', said UK developmental geneticist Robin Lovell-Badge. Science writer Matt Ridley also praised Wilkins' contribution: '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', he said.
Wilkins' death comes just two months after that of Francis Crick, who died aged 88 on 28 July. James Watson, the only scientist involved in the DNA work who is still living, said: 'Wilkins was a very intelligent scientist with a very deep personal concern that science be used to benefit society'. Before his work on the double helix, Wilkins worked in the US on the Manhattan Project, the scientific effort behind the atom bomb. He later became an active member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), and was also President of the British Society for Social Responsibility in Science for many years.