Maurice Hugh Frederick Wilkins was born in Pongaroa, New Zealand. His father was a doctor and in order to pursue his interest in preventative medicine, moved the family to England when Wilkins was six. Wilkins believes that having spent his formative years in New Zealand, he was imbued with the exploratory and adventuresome nature of the early settlers – traits that proved useful in his career as a scientists.
In 1938, Wilkins graduated with a physics degree from St. John’s college in Cambridge. Since England was at war, scientists especially physicists were in great demand. Wilkins worked with John Randall at Birmingham University on improving the radar. This earned him a Ph.D. in 1940, and some of Wilkins work is still used in today’s radar.
In 1943, the physics department at Birmingham University, Wilkins included, moved to Berkeley, California to work on the Manhattan Project. At the time, it was all part of the war effort. However, after the devastating effects of the atomic bomb at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Wilkins became and continues to be an opponent against nuclear weapons.
After the war, Wilkins was hired as a physics lecturer at St. Andrews’ University. Here, he again met with John Randall, now Sir John, who wanted to use physics to study biological problems. Randall was offered a full professorship at King’s College in London and there he set up a biophysics lab with Wilkins as one of his members of the Medical Research Council Biophysics Research Unit.
Wilkins studied biological molecules like DNA and viruses using a variety of microscopes and spectrophotometers. He eventually began using X-rays to produce diffraction images of DNA molecules. The X-ray diffraction images produced by him, Rosalind Franklin, and Raymond Gosling led to the deduction by James Watson and Francis Crick of the 3-dimensional helical nature of DNA. Wilkins shared the 1962 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with Watson and Crick.
Wilkins was made a Companion of the British Empire in 1962 and won other awards and prizes for his work. He collected sculptures and was fond of gardening.