Old white man of the day

Pop quiz: Who discovered the structure of DNA?? Easy – Watson and Crick.

OK then: Who got the Nobel Prize for this discovery? Tougher …. American James Watson, Brit Francis Crick and Kiwi Maurice Wilkins.

Bonus round: Who was primarily responsible for the x-ray photograph that led to the breakthrough? British Jew Rosalind Franklin.? Never heard of her?? Well, that’s sexism and BDS for you!

Seriously though,? Rosalind died four years before the Nobel Prize was awarded and the rules state that the recipients must be living.? Plenty of additional reading on the claims and counter-claims of who did what and when is available online but we are going to focus on the Kiwi connection. Quote:

Maurice Hugh Frederick Wilkins? was born in 1916 at Pongaroa in the Wairarapa. This is an isolated community 60km east of Pahiatua. […] The family moved from Pongaroa to Wellington when Wilkins was still a baby, living at 30 Kelburn Parade. Wilkins said these years were like ?living in paradise?. His years in Wellington were the happiest of his life and he firmly believed the opportunities for exploration and discovery while living in New Zealand helped with his later development as a scientist. He is one of many New Zealanders who contributed greatly to science in the 20th Century.

?In the time of my parents, before World War One, most people who came to New Zealand from Europe were the more enterprising people; the people who were stronger mentally. It takes a certain amount of imagination to make a life on the other side of the world, the same imagination it takes to climb the tallest mountain.?

His father, wanting to further his studies in preventative medicine, moved the family to Britain when Wilkins was six. He was educated at Birmingham?s excellent King Edward School and St. John?s College, Cambridge. He gained a physics degree in 1938, then returned to Birmingham to work as research assistant to Dr. John Randall on the development of radar. […]

Wilkins completed his Ph.D in 1940 under Randall at Birmingham, his thesis subject being the study of the thermal stability of trapped electrons on phosphors, and on the theory of phosphorescence in terms of electron traps.

These ideas were applied to his work during the war on improving Cathode-ray tube screens for radar and the technology Wilkins developed is still used in modern radar. He later worked under M.L.E. Oliphant, who had been Rutherford?s deputy of research at Cambridge, studying the separation of isotopes in bombs.

In 1943, the research group moved from Birmingham to Berkeley, California working under Robert Oppenheimer as part of the Manhattan Project, the American wartime initiative exploring nuclear physics. The Manhattan Project?s research led to the completion, and use, of? ?Fat Man? dropped on Hiroshima and ?Little Boy? dropped on Nagasaki in 1945. The experience led? Wilkins to become a vocal opponent of nuclear weapons, a stance unpopular during the years following the War. He remained an ardent opponent of nuclear weapons and served as President of the British Society for Social Responsibility in Science.

Wilkins said later he didn?t have a sense of the catastrophic possibilities of nuclear weapons during his time at Berkeley. It was a war effort, and their focus was on gaining the technological upper hand over the Nazis.? ?Looking back it was a pretty horrifying situation as the Nazis were winning most facets of the war.???Yet in hindsight, he said the Nazis were lacking the essential brain power as many of their top thinkers had left, or had to leave, Germany.

After the war, Wilkins became a lecturer in physics at St. Andrew?s University Scotland. […]?At the time, biophysics was a new concept involving crossover methodologies of previously unrelated disciplines. Wilkins? decision to move from physics to biophysics was driven by his wartime work into nuclear possibilities.

?I was a solid-state physicist, my Ph.D work related to microchips. After the bomb I wanted to go into another branch of science, one with more positive applications.?

Randall became a full professor at King?s College London, with the prestige to do anything he liked. He moved the biophysics lab from St. Andrews to Kings College in 1946, where Wilkins, age 30, was appointed to the newly formed Medical Research Council Biophysics Research Unit. At first he worked on the genetic effects of ultrasonics, later switching to developing reflecting microscopes for the ultraviolet microspectrophotometric study of nucleic acids in cells.

Using a visible light-polarising microscope, he studied virus particles in the tobacco mosaic virus and later began X-ray diffraction studies of DNA and sperm heads. His discovery of a well-defined and crystalline pattern in this material greatly enhanced knowledge of the molecular structure of DNA. With this method it was possible to photograph molecules and show the actual shape of DNA.

The lab became focused on X-ray crystallography, turning biology upside down. In 1950,Maurice Wilkins and Raymond Gosling took the first images of DNA, producing pictures of X-ray diffraction in aligned fibres of DNA (the double helix). Gosling?s work was continued by Rosalind Franklin who joined the lab the following year.

The discovery and demonstrations inspired American scientist James Watson who, with a friend and colleague of Wilkins?, Francis Crick, was working at the Cavendish Laboratory. Using a 1952 Wilkins/Franklin X-ray diffraction picture of the DNA molecule, Crick and Watson were able, in 1953, to build their correct and detailed model of the DNA molecule.

The breakthrough was as big as any in 20th century science; its discovery opened the doors for science to find out exactly what creates individuals ? both physically and mentally. The names of Crick and Watson spread like wildfire through the scientific community, and soon the world.

The trio of Crick, Watson and Wilkins were awarded the 1962 Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine for their discoveries. End of quote.

As indicated above there were tensions in the teams: Quote:

Wilkins became, the ?third man of DNA?, both invisible and reluctant. He told the?New Zealand Listener?in 1994 ?if you have something as explosive in its profound scientific effects as DNA, it is normal to get some very big tensions building up between the people involved?.

The tensions centred particularly around the relationship between Wilkins and Franklin, the young, gifted chemist who was particularly skilled with X-ray diffraction. […]

As for the discovery of the DNA structure, indeed all scientific discoveries, Wilkins believes that it is rarely the work of one person or team. Instead, breakthroughs come via a series of conclusions, over a period of years, often with unconnected teams working on slightly related topics. […]

Freeman Dyson is in no doubt about the contribution of Wilkins and Franklin to the discovery of DNA. In?Wired?magazine in 1998, he said ?[They] gave Crick and Watson their data. Nobody else in the world had that data. The Crick-Watson discovery of the double helix was not a concept, it really was just the result of having a good tool to analyse the DNA molecule with.?

Maurice Wilkins spent the rest of his career teaching, campaigning against nuclear weapons and writing his life story. He died at the age of 87 in October 2004. End of quote.

 

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