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Pioneer of DNA research dies at 88

By Associated Press
Published October 7, 2004

LONDON - Maurice Wilkins, a Nobel Prize-winning pioneer of DNA research, has died. He was 88.

Mr. Wilkins was awarded the Nobel Prize for medicine in 1962 along with the two scientists credited for describing the structure of DNA, Francis Crick and James Watson.

He died in a London hospital late Tuesday (Oct. 5, 2004).

Announcing his death, principals at King's College in London, where Mr. Wilkins produced his groundbreaking X-ray work that led to Watson's and Crick's discovery, described the professor as "a towering figure, one of the greatest scientists of the 20th century and a man of immense humanity."

Watson, the only scientist involved in the DNA project who is still living, said Wednesday that Mr. Wilkins was "a very intelligent scientist with a very deep personal concern that science be used to benefit society."

"This started in his early days, when he witnessed the atrocities of war, and continued through his life. He will be sorely missed," Watson said in a statement.

Colleagues said Mr. Wilkins, who also worked on the American atomic bomb program known as the Manhattan Project, was proud of his membership in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.

Mr. Wilkins and his colleagues spent seven years proving that the hypothetical DNA model that Watson and Crick constructed was correct.

But it was his initial work on X-ray crystallography that was so critical to the discovery. The technique uses scattered X-rays to produce images of the structure of molecules.

Mr. Wilkins, together with Rosalind Franklin, whom he recruited, found that the long chains of DNA were arranged in the form of a double helix.

"Watson and Crick then used this data to show that the organic bases of DNA were paired in a specific manner in the intertwined helices," said Lord May of Oxford, president of the Royal Society, Britain's academy of scientists.

"While Watson and Crick have rightly been recognized across the world for their contribution, the roles of Wilkins and Franklin, which were crucial, have not always been fully acknowledged outside the scientific community."

Dr. Stephen Minger, a lecturer in biomedical sciences at King's College, where Mr. Wilkins remained on staff until his death, agreed that the scientist probably didn't get the credit he deserved for discoveries that have revolutionized science.

"He is one of the pioneers of molecular biology, and we wouldn't be anywhere close to where we are now without him," Minger said.

Mr. Wilkins is survived by his wife, Patricia Ann, two sons and two daughters. His autobiography, The Third Man of the Double Helix, was published last year.

[Last modified October 7, 2004, 00:30:24]

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