Maurice Wilkins. The third man of the double helix. An autobiography

Maurice Wilkins. The third man of the double helix. An autobiography 
Maurice Wilkins 
Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press | 2005 | 274pp | ?9.99 (SB) | ISBN 019280667X 
Reviewed by Kathryn Sear 

Why did Maurice Wilkins wait half a century after the discovery of DNA structure before telling his side of story?  

In this autobiography, Wilkins tells for the first time his own account of the discovery of the double helix, including details of his intriguing relationship with Rosalind Franklin. 

Many people do not realise that Wilkins shared the 1962 Nobel prize with James Watson and Francis Crick.  

The structure of DNA was proposed by Watson and Crick in 1953 in the Cavendish Laboratories, Cambridge, UK. However, it was Wilkins and his team at Kings College London who painstakingly measured the angles, bonds and orientations of DNA structure using x-ray diffraction. This contribution was essential to DNA structure discovery. 

The Nobel prize for physiology or medicine for the discovery of the double helix was awarded to the three men in 1962, four years after Franklin died. The fact that she was not acknowledged for her work on DNA structure has been seen by many as the kind of injustice that women faced in the previously male-dominated world of scientific research. 

The story is a stunningly powerful insight into the reality of scientific discovery and can be enjoyed at a variety of levels. The 10 chapters detail the days before, during and after the DNA story and approximately 40 black and white photos help to illustrate his story. 

The beginning of the book details much of Wilkins’ early life which holds little in the way of insight into his scientific career. During the second world war, Wilkins controversially worked on the atomic bomb. The most interesting part of the book, for me, is the relationship between Wilkins and Franklin. 

Wilkins overcame his natural reticence to give this account of the DNA story. He was not a brilliant writer and would have benefited considerably from a coauthor. However, this honest yet naive account of the true story of DNA structure discovery amends and challenges some claims made by others.  

It is good to hear finally Wilkins’ side of story and clear up some of ’the tensions, accusations, confusions, and 
controversies that have attended the telling and retelling of the story of DNA’.