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Maurice Wilkins

Wilkins was born in 1916 in New Zealand of parents from Dublin but came to England at the age of six to be educated. He won a scholarship to King Edward's School, Birmingham.

From 1935, he studied physics at St. John's College, Cambridge, taking his degree in 1938. There he became highly involved in the Cambridge Scientists Anti-War Group (CSAWG), and joined the Communist Party, perhaps being much influenced by J D Bernal (see separate entry).

He then went to Birmingham University, where he became research assistant in the Physics Department, obtaining a Ph.D. in 1940. He appears to have allowed his membership of the Party to lapse at this point but Wilkins remained very much of a far left persuasion for the rest of his life.

Wilkins was investigated between 1951-1954 by MI5, which had been told by the FBI that a scientist with an Australian or New Zealand association who had worked on the Manhattan Project to build a nuclear weapon, had revealed information about it to the notoriously leaky Communist Party of the USA members. Although he was only one of many with the correct nationality, there was remarkably little evidence that Wilkins could have been involved in spying.

He later made clear that to have worked as a secret agent would not have appealed to him at all. It would have been better, he said, to have openly raised the need “for the Allies to share information with the Soviet Union". Wilkins became a founder member of CND.

More famously, but all too often not mentioned as the `third man’ of DNS, he was made a joint Nobel Prize winner in 1962 with Crick and Watson for their work and discoveries concerning the structure of nucleic acids. 

Perhaps with the added protection of this, he now became much more publicly politically active than he had been for a long time.  He was elected the President of the British Society for the Social Responsibility in Science (BSSRS), regarded by the establishment as radical left-wing body.

His personal participation in the campaign to get the biological research work at Porton Down declassified saw him give evidence to the Himsworth enquiry on the detrimental effects of CS gas in Northern Ireland.

His advocacy of nuclear disarmament led to a number of high profile public appearances.

He was vice-president of the World Federation of Scientific Workers, which had been set up by the outstanding scientists and public figures of J D Bernal and F Joliot Curie in 1946. As scientists were dragged by western militaristic governments to cease connections with eastern Europe and China, WFSW became more and more dominated just by Communists but this did not diminish Wilkins’ involvement.

He was also a frequent attender at meetings of Pugwash, the international group of socially concerned scientists.

Wilkins died in 2004.