Maurice Wilkins, who played a critical role in discovering the structure of DNA but whose contributions were long overshadowed by James Watson and Francis Crick, died Tuesday at a London hospital. He was 88.
The discovery of DNA's double helix structure -- considered one of the towering achievements of the 20th century and perhaps all of scientific history -- is key to understanding the primary genetic blueprint for life.
The discovery 50 years ago jump-started the field of molecular biology and eventually led to such advancements as genetic screening tests for cancer, genetic fingerprinting of criminals and the still-controversial creation of genetically engineered organisms.
Despite his pivotal role in providing the first photographs of the DNA molecule, Wilkins had long stood in the shadows of Watson and Crick, who worked together to determine the structure of DNA and achieved far more fame from the work in later years. Wilkins' death comes about two months after that of Crick.
That Watson and Crick's success was so dependent upon the work by Wilkins and his colleague Rosalind Franklin is commonly overlooked, said Adrian Hayday, a colleague of Wilkins at King's College London. "Maurice Wilkins played an absolutely critical role."
Wilkins' autobiography, published last year, is titled "The Third Man of the Double Helix."
Wilkins and Franklin used X-ray techniques to take the first photographs of DNA. The clear images they provided, which pointed to a double helical structure, enabled Watson and Crick to beat chemist Linus Pauling in the furious race to be first to decode the structure of DNA, or deoxyribonucleic acid. In 1962, Wilkins, Watson and Crick were awarded the Nobel Prize.
That award has been controversial as well. Wilkins had long been embroiled in controversy over whether he, Watson and Crick provided enough credit to Franklin, who was able to capture the best and crispest image of DNA, known as Photograph 51. Wilkins and Franklin did not get along and sometimes barely spoke to each other.
Wilkins showed Watson the key picture in 1953, without Franklin's knowledge.
"The instant I saw the picture, my mouth fell open and my pulse began to race," Watson wrote in his 1968 book "The Double Helix."
A month later, Watson and Crick had their structure: a twisted ladder with strands running in opposite directions. The sides of the ladder are formed of sugars and phosphates with the rungs formed of base pairs of nucleotides -- molecules that make up the actual genetic code. Those base pairs are held together by weak bonds that unzip, so one strand can act as a template and accurately pass on the genetic code.
The work of the two men was published April 25, 1953, in the science journal Nature in a now-famous paper. Part of the reason Wilkins' role has been minimized is that his name does not appear in the paper. Watson and Crick had offered, but Wilkins declined -- a decision he later regretted.
"The original research paper only had two names," he told the Sunday Times in London last year. "That was a bad idea."
Franklin was not eligible for the Nobel because she died four years before it was awarded, of ovarian cancer that was believed to be linked to her X-ray work.
Though some historians have argued that Franklin might have won the prize over Wilkins, he disputed that, saying that she spent just two years on the work and did not see the larger significance of her photos. He provided the photos to Watson, he said, after she had sat on them for months and decided to stop working on the project.
Wilkins went on to spend seven years testing the Watson-Crick model for accuracy and providing small refinements, work also cited by the Nobel committee.
Wilkins was born in rural New Zealand in 1916, to Irish immigrants. His father was a physician and vegetarian with interests in preventive medicine.
Wilkins, who moved to England with his family at age 6, went on to study physics at Cambridge. He earned a PhD at Birmingham University for research on phosphorescence, applying his work to the improvement of the accuracy of radar screens.
In the early 1940s, Wilkins moved to UC Berkeley to work on the Manhattan Project. He spent two years researching the separation of uranium isotopes for atomic bombs. Disturbed by the destructive nature of the weapons work and inspired by a book on living cells written by fellow physicist Erwin Schrodinger, Wilkins returned to England in 1945 and turned his attention to biology.
"Partly on account of the [atomic bomb], I lost some interest in physics," he told the Saturday Review magazine in 1963. Wilkins became excited about working on DNA in 1946, after scientists at the Rockefeller Institute in New York discovered that it was the main constituent of genes.
Given a vial of gooey DNA gel from a Swiss scientist, Wilkins realized it could be stretched into long, fragile strings. "It's just like snot!" he is said to have exclaimed.
This slimy property was fortuitous: Whenever a glass rod was pulled from the gel, a thin fiber spun itself between the surface of the gel and the rod. Wilkins realized that the fibers would be ideal for analysis by X-ray -- and for the eventual production of images that clearly showed the double spiral.
Wilkins spent the rest of his career at King's College London continuing his work in biophysics. He was also active in nuclear disarmament issues and served as president of the British Society for Social Responsibility in Science from 1969 until 1991.
"He was a very intelligent scientist with a very deep personal concern that science be used to benefit society," Watson said Wednesday in a statement. "This started in his early days, when he witnessed the atrocities of war, and continued through his life. He will be sorely missed."
Wilkins was remembered by his colleagues in London as being extremely modest and unwilling to put up with pomposity or overstatement. In the first draft of his Nobel lecture, he wrote, "Nucleic acids are very remarkable." After some thought, he crossed out the word very.
Wilkins was survived by his wife, Patricia, two sons and two daughters. King's College officials said he was surrounded by family when he died.