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DNA: the King's story

Herbert Wilson (1929-2008)

Herbert Wilson and colleagues, 2003Herbert Wilson and colleagues, 2003Herbert Wilson was born in 1929 and educated in Wales. A student of physics, his doctoral thesis focussed on x-ray diffraction techniques in metals.

Excited by the post-war interest in the study of the structure of organic molecules and the emerging science of biophysics, Wilson transferred to John Randall's Biophysics Unit at King's College London and began work in September 1952 on x-ray diffraction studies of DNA and nucleoproteins under the supervision of Maurice Wilkins.

The purpose of this research was to compare diffraction patterns of DNA from a variety of sources in order to elucidate a common set of characteristics that might provide a definitive clue to the structure of the molecule.

The preliminary experiments undertaken by Wilkins' team, including Wilson, compared intermolecular separation in pig thymus and wheatgerm DNA with squid sperm, strengthening the belief that the phosphate groups on DNA are located on the outside of the molecule. This was in contrast to the belief of some, including Watson and Crick that they lay on the inside of the molecule.

Herbert Wilson and King's colleagues, 1993Herbert Wilson and King's colleagues, 1993The team soon obtained A-type crystalline DNA from various sources including human DNA that demonstrated the similarity between DNA from different sources.

Following the discovery of the double helix structure of DNA by Watson and Crick, Wilkins's team, including Wilson, Geoffrey Brown and Bill Seeds, undertook x-ray diffraction experiments that helped confirm the validity of the double helix model.

The fruit of the collaboration between Wilkins and Wilson was made public in the three Nature articles of April 25 1953 that publicised the findings of Watson, Crick, and the King's research of Wilkins and Rosalind Franklin.

Wilson left King's in 1957 before beginning a distinguished and lengthy career at Queen's College, Dundee, later the University of Dundee, at which he worked on crystallographic studies of nucleic acid components and plant viruses.

He became Senior Lecturer in 1964, and Reader in 1973, before being elected Professor of Physics at Stirling in 1983.

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