Thursday, August 26, 2010

The Name’s Wilkins. Maurice Wilkins.

Posted by Nathaniel Comfort on 08/26 at 08:17 AM

Yesterday, The Guardian reported that Maurice Wilkins, the mousey Kings College London physicist-cum-crystallographer who didn’t find the structure of DNA, was investigated as a possible spy—exactly during the crescendo moment of the double helix saga.

Wilkins, recall, was a friend of Watson and Crick and the administrative (but not intellectual) supervisor of Rosalind Franklin, whose trenchant criticism and crystallographic images were crucial to W&C’s solution of the DNA problem.

For two years, Wilkins, who had worked on the Manhattan Project during the war, was investigated by MI5, according to security files just released by the British National Archives. Wilkins was born in New Zealand. Apparently, in 1951 the FBI informed MI5 that Wilkins or one of the other eight New Zealand or Australia natives who worked on the project had close ties to the American Communist Party. The investigation was dropped in 1953.

During that period, of course, Watson and Crick were at the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge, madly building models, chasing “popsies,” and antagonizing Rosalind Franklin. Wilkins is one of few actors who gets gentle treatment in Watson’s best-selling memoir, The Double Helix.

Watson’s book needs to be read as farce. Many people have been angered by its inaccuracies (not to mention its sexism), but one mustn’t read it as history. It is a theater piece, based on real-life events. Crick, who Watson idolized, is the hero. Watson is the fool and the unreliable narrator. Franklin the villain. None of these roles are historically accurate.

But now I understand Wilkins’s role in the drama: he is the spy.

He is a foil in the narrative. Like Watson, he is constantly fretting about Franklin—especially how to get rid of her. When Watson angers Franklin and he fears she is about to hit him, Wilkins miraculously pokes his head in at the door and distracts him, allowing Watson to slouch away. At a crucial juncture, Wilkins supplies Watson with Franklin’s crystallographic images of DNA, which according to Watson put the pieces together and allowed him to solve the structure.

Did Wilkins know he was being investigated? Did Watson? It would be worth interviewing Watson and perhaps Jerry Donohue or Raymond Gosling—the extant principles of the drama—and combing the archives for evidence.

Check it:
Judson, Horace Freeland. The Eighth Day of Creation: Makers of the Revolution in Biology. Cold Spring Harbor, NY: Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press, 1996.
Maddox, Brenda. Rosalind Franklin : The Dark Lady of DNA. New York: HarperCollins, 2002.
Olby, Robert C. Francis Crick : Hunter of Life’s Secrets. Cold Spring Harbor, N.Y.: Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press, 2008.
Olby, Robert C. The Path to the Double Helix : The Discovery of DNA. New York: Dover Publications, 1994.
Watson, James D., and Gunther S. Stent. The Double Helix : A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA.

Tags: dna, double helix, maurice wilkins, rosalind franklin