WILKINS, Maurice (1916-2004). Autograph letter signed with initial (“M.”) to Leonard Hamilton, London, 19/20 March 1953.

Two pages recto and verso, 203 x 127mm. Fine condition. On Biophysics Research Unit stationery, King’s College London.

Keep all information I give you to yourself. If you tell everyone your DNA crystallizes, Pauling will get it & try to steal a march on us. Simply say we are getting very interesting results.”

Breathless, thrilling letter from Wilkins to one of his closest friends. Announcing Watson and Crick’s "notion" of an helical model and Wilkins' own urgent need for more DNA. Written a full month before the Nature article and on the same day and/or following day as Francis Crick’s famous "Secret of Life" letter to his son. Maurice Wilkins, of course, would share the Nobel Prize for the discovery of the double-helix structure of DNA. With his colleague Rosalind Franklin, Wilkins provided the X-ray diffraction patterns that James Watson and Francis Crick used to build their model. It was Leonard Hamilton, the recipient of this letter, who prepared and supplied the DNA for X-ray photography in Wilkins’ lab. This letter is a fascinating window into the maelstrom of excitement (and politicking) that accompanied the most important scientific discovery of the 20th Century.

In part: “Dear Leonard, You are exasperating! What is the DNA? Is it human?? It’s bloody good stuff. Both specimens give crystalline pictures!!! S180 3-7 is probably better. Can you send us more anything up to a gm or two?

This whole DNA business is busting open. We have got rid of the young woman who was monopolizing much of our data & swearing it wasn’t a helix. Francis and Jim Watson have a helical model with a clever notion in it and our exp. evidence & their model all appear in Nature in about a month.

But it is an absolute Rat Race.”

In his excitement, Rosalind Franklin isn’t the only one discounted. Wilkins continues by complaining about Crick, who maintains he “has done it all by pure reason” and also Linus Pauling, who has “made an utter ass of himself.” He apologizes for his anti-scientific meanness, but assures Hamilton that, because they are publishing very shortly, complaints about his and Watson and Crick’s caginess will soon be mitigated. But in the penultimate paragraph, Wilkins rather contradicts himself and asks Hamilton to acquire any data on the bonding of the nitrogenous bases in DNA that he can: “We thought of writing to him to ask but felt asking for unpublished data might come better thro’ you” and marks this paragraph Urgent. The whole concludes with another urge to speed. “Who made [the specimens]? Please reply soon … Yours, very excited, M.

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