Maurice Wilkins was a chatty Cathy. Steeped in a war of secrecy he handed the opposition his most precious intel and watched them claim victory. Some may think him the fool who let the cat out of the bag, but he just may be the hero science needed.
At a time when life was thought to have some immaterial quality, three opposing factions were racing to be the first to give the essence of life a physical explanation. It was a race to see the structure of DNA, the “life molecule”. Maurice Wilkins was working with Roslyn Franklin at Kings College in London, the two time Nobel Prize winning Linus Pauling worked independently in the US and James Watson and Thomas Crick were working at Cambridge University. However, Wilkins and Franklin were the only ones doing any real experimental or physical science.
Their opposing teams were simply building models or trying to figure out the structure in their head based on some chemical analysis of chromosomes. This was widely viewed as the lazy approach to the problem. The difficult approach founded by Wilkins was using x-rays to determine the shape of DNA in a crystalline form. Essentially, they were bombarding the DNA with X-rays and then looking at its shadow. Originally this was the sole mission of Maurice Wilkins, but due to the importance of the task, he was assigned a partner in Roslyn Franklin. She was a talented scientist who quickly stole the spotlight along with the hearts of many young geeky scientists.
However, the much less intoxicating, Maurice was the backbone of the operation. So with a shy temperament and determination for the advancement of science, Wilkins tirelessly widened the peephole viewing DNA’s structure. On the other side of the door he found that his data indicated a helix shape for DNA. He was mere steps away from determining the entire structure along with Roslyn Franklin, but in their midst a spy lurked.
Jim Watson was infamous for his nosy antics and questionable intel gathering methods, he could often be found at events gathering info and interrogating external scientists. This noisy nature lead him into the office on Roslyn Franklin, where he claims to have been waiting to meet with her but when she entered he was snooping around her laboratory and she instantly became furious. Kicked out of the office, Jim Watson was quickly sheltered by Maurice Watson. Perhaps Maurice was bitter that they let Roslyn take over the project or perhaps he was simply to excited to contain himself, but in a moment of reckless abandon he reached into his drawer and pulled out his diffraction images that indicated DNA’s helix structure.
Jim Watson was handed the single biggest piece of evidence for DNA’s structure. After all his prying and prodding for information, it was the willing hands of Maurice Wilkins that let the cat out of the bag. Now Watson and Crick only had to put the pieces together. Soon after this meeting, the Cambridge duo released their model for the structure of DNA, and soon after they all received Nobel Prizes, including Maurice Wilkins for his contribution of the X-ray diffraction images. But the names Watson and Crick are the ones that echo through the halls of Universities and stain the pages of textbooks.
Maurice Wilkins faded back into the shadows, forgotten and disregarded. But his timid temperament was not one for the spotlight, his persona does not jump off the pages of history. Instead he was a servant of science. In a age that was optimized by harsh rivalries and scientific non-cooperation, he was the only hand reaching across the aisle. Wilkins saw no enemies in fellow scientists, and he felt no remorse. The science of DNA excited Wilkins, and he felt that his contribution was meant to be shared with the entire world. In fact when asked if he had let the cat out of the bag he simply stated, “I guess that is perfectly true, but i don’t believe science should be kept in bags…any more than cats.”
-this post was inspired by the TV documentary “DNA – The Secret of Life”
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