The discovery of the structure of DNA was a milestone in genetics and ushered in the modern era of genome research and biotechnology. Crick and Watson’s Nature paper in April 1953 was one of those scientific revolutions that only happen once in a short while. The scientific duo built on an extensive knowledge-base provided by the research efforts of such luminaries as Phoebus Levene, Oswald Avery, and Erwin Chargaff.
In his own words Wilkins was the ’third man of the double helix, ’ and in fact, that was the title of his autobiography which was published in 2003, a year before his death. By many accounts, he was a shy and self-effacing man, and there are many who consider that he hasn’t been afforded the true recognition that his research deserves.
This is underlined by an interview in 2004 that science writer Matt Ridley gave to the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC): “It was he who first obtained an X-ray image of DNA, he who taught Francis Crick about DNA, his photograph that inspired James Watson, and his suggestion that led to the recruitment of Rosalind Franklin to Kings College.”
In 1950 Maurice Wilkins was working at King’s College, London and using X-ray diffraction to create well-defined images of DNA. The images were of exceptional clarity. And it was this research and the images that were created in the Wilkins lab that sparked James Watson’s interest in DNA. The young scientist became convinced that they could help unravel the mystery of the blueprint of life.
In 1951 Wilkins informed Crick and Watson that his studies indicated a double helical structure for DNA. Using this knowledge they constructed their first DNA model, but it had the phosphate backbones in the center. Rosalind Franklin, who was working with Wilkins, informed them that they were wrong because the backbones are hydrophilic and should be on the outside of the structure where they can interact with water.
In 1952, Franklin and colleague Raymond Gosling produced the now famous Photo 51 X-ray diffraction image of DNA. Wilkins showed it to Crick and Watson the following year. “The instant I saw the picture my mouth fell open, and my pulse began to race,” remembered Watson in the book The Double Helix (1968). After seeing the image Crick and Watson redoubled their model making efforts and the eureka moment came on February 28, 1953. The Nature paper was published in April 1953 which proposes the double-stranded base pairing model that we now recognize; that is where the phosphate backbone is on the outside, and the paired bases point inward, like the rungs of a ladder.
In that same edition of Nature, Wilkins, Franklin, and Gosling published articles about their X-ray diffraction studies which supported the Crick and Watson model.