Meeting Maurice Wilkins

Recently I saw this post on Twitter from @Kevin_Fong who is a well known Wellcome Trust Public Engagement Fellow.

Kevin Fong @Kevin_Fong

Discovery of Double Helix on#NewElizabethans. Maurice Wilkins so should’ve won Science Superheroes#CheltSciFest #BBC

It is funny how certain names or words trigger particular memories. Maurice Wilkins name triggered a very strong memory for me. Maurice Wilkins was an X-ray crystallographer who worked on the structure of DNA contemporaneously with James Watson and Francis Crick. Maurice had a key role in explaining the 3-dimensional double helix structure of DNA and was awarded the Nobel prize for Medicine for this landmark discovery along with Watson and Crick. Rosalind Franklin who was Wilkins colleague At King’s College would have been similarly honoured had she not sadly died of cancer at the age of 37. This is a nice account of the four pioneers or you can read a slightly more in depth version from Roger Highfield from the Daily Telegraph.

So what did Maurice Wilkins mean to me? In 1983 I enrolled as a medical student  at King’s College in London. After my first two preclinical years I was awarded an MRC studentship to study for an intercalated BSc. I chose to study with Professor Frank Cox who was and I believe still is a thought leader in malaria and other parasite immunology. My project was really quite complicated and when I look back now with my knowledge of experimental models I realise that it was hugely ambitious. Back in 1985 there was considerable interest in how pregnant women with malaria coped with the disease and what happened to the parasite. It was suspected that during pregnancy the malaria parasite preferentially accumulated or sequestered in the placenta giving rise to a paradoxical situation where the patient was really quite ill, miscarriage was common but with an apparently very low circulating parasite count. This was obviously serious for the foetus and also for the mother and was a major problem in Africa and other areas where malaria is endemic. We set about trying to model this in mice!

Looking back it is quite astonishing that we set out on this adventure with no reagents other than those we made ourselves and I recall having to design and produce my own ELISA (enzyme linked immunosorbent assays) and IFAT (indirect fluorescent antibody tests) tests with the help of a PhD student Stephanie Millott. There were no kits in those days (now at risk of sounding like my dad). The hardest part however was trying to convince mice to mate at the correct time to enable measurement of parasitaemia at the appropriate stage of pregnancy. This work incidentally was done by sequential measurements in the same animals to reduce the number of animals required, a very advanced nod to the 3 R’s (reduction, refinement, replacement) for limiting animal experimentation. Eventually over the course of the year I managed to accumulate data which explained the anti malarial (we don’t know which antigen) IgM and IgG  immunoglobulin profiles and related these in real time to parasite counts in peripheral blood and the well being of the mice during the course of pregnancy and beyond.

Frank Cox was being called on to do more and more work for the World Health Organization and was often away in China or other far flung places. I know he felt quite  bad about leaving me to my own devices because he told me so, but he had the foresight to put in good help.  So with my colleague and contemporary Joe Beynon who was studying a related project and our ever helpful scientific adviser Stephanie I managed to pull it all together and produce a thesis. At that time at King’s it was necessary to have an oral exam to defend even a meagre BSc thesis.

I knew that one of my examiners was to be Anton Dluzewski who was a merozoite malaria expert associated with the Biophysics unit in Drury Lane but I didn’t know who my other examiner would be. I was introduced to my other interlocutor on the day, who was none other than Maurice Wilkins,  Nobel Laureate.  To paint the picture I was 21 years old, was wearing a horrid green striped shirt that I had bought from a market stall in Brixton especially for the occasion and did not own a tie. So here I was confronted with probably the most famous British biomedical scientist of the day and he was here to examine me!

Of course I knew exactly who he was and I nearly died from fright. I needn’t have worried however, for he was charm personified. He seemed genuinely interested in my project and particularly in how I had overcome various technical problems, most notably having to make all my own reagents! (I did of course give due credit to Stephanie Millott without whom my project would not have been possible at all). He was also interested in my thesis which included a number of paintings of parasites done in watercolour (no camera for the fluorescent microscope and no photoshop) and the fact that I had hand drawn all the graphs using Letraset and a Rotring pen (no Excel, no Powerpoint and no computer!). He also clearly understood the medical problem and the complexity of trying to model this. Anyway I left my viva voce exam feeling that I had been very thoroughly tested not only by a leading malaria researcher but rather unexpectedly by a Nobel Laureate.

Four weeks later I went to the Quad at King’s on the Strand and found to my astonishment that I had been awarded a BSc with first class honours. I was given back my thesis and inside was a hand written note which said words to the effect of

” I am very surprised that this thesis has been marked down to a bare first class mark, I think it is very much better than that,” (signed) Maurice Wilkins.

And so I think I have Maurice Wilkins to thank for my first class degree, but more important than that, it was wonderful to have the opportunity, at such a young age, to meet someone so inspirational who had achieved so much and in such a completely understated way. Somewhere in my garage I still have that thesis and it still contains the hand written note which I treasure as a tiny link to a charming and great man, who achieved a truly giant leap in scientific understanding – Maurice Wilkins.

© 2012 SJ Wigmore

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