Scientist Maurice Wilkins was one of a number of expatriates who left New Zealand in childhood. Born in Pongaroa, Wairarapa, in 1916, he was just six years old when his father, a doctor who wanted to further his studies in preventative medicine, moved his family to Britain. Wilkins gained a physics degree at Cambridge University in 1938 and then became a research assistant to John Randall of Birmingham University, who was developing microwave transmitters to be used in radar. After completing his PhD on an aspect of radar technology, Wilkins moved to Berkeley, California, to work on the Manhattan Project, which was developing the nuclear bomb. Following the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Wilkins became vehemently opposed to nuclear weapons.
After a period lecturing at St Andrews University in Scotland, Wilkins moved to Kings College London in 1946 to join his old boss Randall in biophysics research. Using X-ray crystallography, Wilkins and fellow researchers Raymond Gosling and later Rosalind Franklin produced pictures of X-ray diffraction in aligned fibres of DNA – the double helix. Their work inspired scientists James Watson and Francis Crick to build a detailed model of the DNA molecule. This breakthrough in identifying the unique 'building blocks of life' revolutionised biology and medicine. In 1962 Wilkins, Crick and Watson were awarded the Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine for their discoveries. Married twice, with five children, Wilkins published his autobiography, The third man of the double helix, in 2003. He died in 2004.
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