Maurice Wilkins, 88, a Nobel Prize winner whose role in discovering the double helix structure of DNA has been overshadowed by more-celebrated colleagues for the past half-century, died Oct. 5 in a London hospital. No cause of death was reported.
Dr. Wilkins won the Nobel in Medicine in 1962, along with James Watson and the late Francis Crick, for what is considered one of the most important scientific findings of the 20th century: the key to understanding how every living cell is created.
Dr. Wilkins, leading a team that included Rosalind Franklin, used a technique called X-ray crystallography to investigate the molecular structure of deoxyribonucleic acid and find that the long chains of DNA were arranged in the form of a double helix.
Franklin photographed the structure and Dr. Wilkins, without her knowledge, showed it to Watson and Crick. That duo went on to theorize that the organic bases of DNA were paired in a specific manner, each strand of which could become a template for copying an organism's genes. That replication becomes the blueprint for life.
Watson and Crick published their findings in 1953, accompanied by an article co-written by Dr. Wilkins that described the experimental evidence for the "twisted ladder" theory. Franklin's name was left off the list of authors on that article, and she died before the 1962 Nobel was awarded, making her ineligible for the prize. Dr. Wilkins spent seven years after the 1953 publication proving the double-helix theory correct.
The double-helix discovery gave birth to the $30 billion-a-year biotechnology industry, and led scientists to understand how humans inherit traits and how that inheritance explains evolution.
Dr. Wilkins' autobiography, "The Third Man of the Double Helix," was published last year, the 50th anniversary of the discovery. Although he was in frail physical health, he participated in the anniversary celebration.
"While Watkins and Crick have rightly been recognised across the world for their contribution, the roles of Wilkins and Franklin, which were crucial, have not always been fully acknowledged outside the scientific community," Lord May of Oxford, president of the Royal Society, said in a statement. The Society, the United Kingdom's independent academy of science, noted that Dr. Wilkins also was known for his contributions to experimental optics, biophysics and the luminescence of solids.
"Maurice Wilkins was a central figure in one of the greatest scientific discoveries of the twentieth century -- the double helix of DNA -- but his generosity and extreme modesty allowed others to share the prize," British popular-science writer Matt Ridley, author of "Genome" and "Nature vs. Nurture," told the Associated Press.
"It was he . . . who taught Francis Crick about DNA, his photograph that inspired James Watson," Ridley said. "But later, it was he who finally proved the double helix correct."
A news release from King's College, where Dr. Wilkins worked from 1946 until his death, announced his death and called him "well loved, intensely private and self-effacing. . . . He hated pomposity and was particularly proud of his involvement with the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament."
Watson, chancellor of Cold Spring Harbor laboratory in New York, said in a statement: "He was a very intelligent scientist with a very deep personal concern that science be used to benefit society."
Crick, who later worked at the Salk Institute in La Jolla, Calif., died July 28.
Born in Pongaroa, New Zealand, as the son of Irish immigrants, Dr. Wilkins was taken to England at age 6 for his education. He received his physics degree from Cambridge University in 1938. He was awarded a doctoral degree in 1940 from Birmingham University, where his thesis was on the theory of phosphorescence.
During World War II, he worked on the separation of uranium isotopes, first in England. He later joined the Manhattan Project, helping the United States work on the atom bomb, in Berkeley, Calif.
He returned to Britain in 1945 to become a physics lecturer at St. Andrews' University in Scotland, where he began studying biophysics. A year later, the biophysics unit moved to King's College in London.
Dr. Wilkins was elected to the Royal Society in 1959. With Watson and Crick, he shared the Albert Lasker Award from the American Public Health Association in 1960. He was made a Companion of the British Empire in 1962, and he was president of the British Society for Social Responsibility in Science from 1969 to 1991.
Survivors include his wife of 45 years, Patricia Ann Chidgey Wilkins; and two children.