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The Death of Professor Maurice Wilkins

Fri, 08 Oct 2004

The Death of Professor Maurice Wilkins

The Royal Society of New Zealand expresses its great regret over the death of eminent New Zealand scientist Maurice Wilkins, aged 87. In 1953, Maurice played a key role in one of the greatest scientific breakthroughs of the twentieth century, the discovery of DNA's double helix. Later he became New Zealand's second Nobel laureate, when Wilkins, Watson and Crick received the 1962 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for this work.

Born in 1916 in the backblocks of the Wairarapa, Maurice was taken to England at the age of six and received his physics degree at Cambridge University in 1938. Despite leaving New Zealand so early, he described his years here as 'living in paradise', and regarded himself as a New Zealander still.

In 2003 the Royal Society of New Zealand celebrated 50 years of the DNA double helix with a year-long commemoration of Maurice's life and work. A number of scientific organisations contributed to a portrait of Maurice, painted by New Zealand artist Juliet Kac, which now hangs in the Society's rooms in Wellington (the portrait can be seen at ). A poem was dedicated to Maurice was written by Victoria University's Chris Orsman (see below).

Maurice 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.

For more information on Maurice Wilkins and the year of DNA celebration, see

Making Waves

for Maurice Wilkins

Light diffracted on a bedroom wall at 30 Kelburn Parade, making waves through a cloth blind, circa 1920; outside, pongas and cabbage trees lie just within memory's range, a pattern and a shadow. The silence here is qualified but it draws you out, four years old, or five. The world's a single room where fronds and wind tap a code against the window pane. Next up you're wild, sprinting down a helix of concrete steps from the hills to the harbour. Or you're leaning into a gale commensurate to your incline and weight; the elements support you, and the blustery horizon is fresh with new information.


And now the landscape changes from island to continent to island again, and there's a sea-change as we fire off certain rays to form a transverse across your history. Acclimatised, you wintered over in laboratories and made a virtue of basements and arcane knowledge; you found a scientific silence or a calm in which things are worked out at a snail's pace, a slime stretched and scrutinized between forefinger and thumb to yield a feast of the truth, or a field ploughed with frustration, if that is where our guesses land us. For Science is a railway carriage rocking with big ideas, sometimes stalled on the sidings or slowed on branch lines near rural stations. And still the whole is too huge for us to comprehend, one metre long, wrapped around each cell, unread until it's unwound, the scarf and valence of our complexity, from which we derive our unique timbre to say: Well done! Well done!


To an amateur an x-ray plate looks like an old fashioned gramophone disk: yet it plays scratchy music of the spheres, jazz of an original order. Or perhaps it's the ground-section of a Byzantine Cathedral, or a basilica of double colonnades and semi-circular apse and who builds upwards from that to discover the grand design? Who constructs with only a floor plan to find the elevations? Those who are neither architects nor masons but quiet archaeologists of the unseen hand and mind of God, digging upwards to the exquisite airy construction of the double helix. Gifted clumsiness? Genius? You are there at the start of it, a chiropractor of the biochemical, clicking the backbone of DNA into place.

Chris Orsman 2002


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