Maurice Wilkins: glimmers of greatness

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By | The Researcher’s View

Here’s a tantalising glimpse into the Maurice Wilkins archive by Geoff Browell, Senior Archives Services Manager at King’s College Archives Services. This is another in our series on key figures in the history of genetics, who form part of the Codebreakers: Makers of Modern Genetics online resource.  The original papers are held by Kings College, London.

The papers of Professor Maurice Wilkins at King’s College not only contain a wealth of research relating to experiments to unravel the DNA double helix at the College during the 1950s, and thousands of the original X-ray diffraction slides crucial to deciphering its structure, but papers from Wilkins’ childhood and early career that point towards his later preoccupations as a scientist, Nobel Prize winner and social activist. The selection highlights the breadth and variety of many scientists’ archive collections, not least those selected for Codebreakers: Makers of Modern Genetics.

Radium Island is a ‘boy’s own’ story book written and illustrated by Wilkins at school in Birmingham, probably in 1928 when Wilkins was just eleven.  The story demonstrates the young Wilkins’ understanding of the potential of technology and the uses of atomic power.  He was later to work on the Manhattan Project to develop the first atomic bomb, before renouncing the application of nuclear technology to war and becoming one of the founding members of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in 1957.

illustration of a city of the future

Structural changes necessary in a Fritz Lang-inspired city of the future to withstand the onslaught from aerial bombers. Illustrated London News, August 1928.

Among Wilkins’ papers are large numbers of magazine and newspaper articles, including the Illustrated London News, which indulged his preoccupation with futurology and the threat of war that became a lifelong passion. This example, from August 1928, shows the likely structural changes necessary in a Fritz Lang-inspired city of the future to withstand the onslaught from aerial bombers, with the likelihood that another World War could potentially bring about the deaths of millions of citizens from a malign miss-application of technology.

Cartoon on genetics by Maurice Wilkins

Annotated cartoons drawn by Wilkins to illustrate his lectures. Includes uncorking the bottle of secrets of life with a DNA double helix corkscrew. Wellcome Library reference: KPP178/15/6/4

Wilkins was a keen cartoonist and he indulged his hobby to comment on contemporary ethical and scientific mores, debates and discourse, including the role of religion and science in Snow’s ‘Two Cultures’, the potential dangers of genetic engineering and cloning and the pervasive Cold War threat of nuclear, chemical or biological annihilation. Wilkins devised an innovative ‘social impact of the biosciences’ course during the 1970s, and played a key role in setting up or running organisations including the Pugwash Conferences and the British Society for Social Responsibility in Science, which provided fora for scientists to lobby opinion formers  and engage in public education and commentary.

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