So long and thanks for all the hits!

  Sadly, this will be the last post on the DNA and Social Responsibility blog as the project is nearing an end. I hope those who have read the blog have taken away an interest in the life and career of Maurice Wilkins and how the papers that are held in the King's College Archive are a fantastic resource for future research in not only the history of genetics but also the wider role played by science in society in the twentieth century. Helping to catalogue this collection has been an enjoyable experience as it has introduced me to the delights of x-ray diffraction photographs; Fourier Transforms and Electron Density Maps not to mention the myriad political scientific groups most notably, BSSRS.

As a finale,I would like to sign off by sharing my favourite Wilkins' laboratory doodle. Cartoon is somewhat anarchic but does convey how science for Maurice Wilkins is a creative enterprise that still retained a slight hint of alchemy in the proceedings. 

'Ways out of the Arms Race": The Second International Scientists' Congress

During the 1980's, Maurice Wilkins spent a significant amount of time promoting and campaigning on disarmament and development issues. While maintaining his long running membership of British Pugwash, Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), British Society for Social Responsibility in Science (BSSRS) and the World Federation of Scientific Worker's (WFSW), he also became honorary President of the Food and Disarmament International (FDI) organisation and an active member of scientists' against nuclear arms (SANA). It was the later that led to his involvement in the 'Ways out of the Arms Race' Second International Scientists' Congress held at Imperial College London, on the 2-4 December 1988. The conference aim was for imminent scientists from across the globe to discuss papers on nuclear, chemical and biological disarmament. It succeeded in doing so with the added benefit of providing political pressure by mobilising its attendance to protest on two concurrent political events: the abduction and imprisonment of the Israeli nuclear plant technician, Dr Mordechai Vanunu and the poison gas attacks by the Iraqi Army in Halabja in 1988. Evidence of the petitions and demonstrations are recorded in the papers of Maurice Wilkins which includes candid replies to him from representatives of the Israeli and Iraqi governments.

Campaign relating to Dr Mordechai Vanunu

Dr Mordechai Vanunu, was a former nuclear technician at the Negev Nuclear Research Center from 1976-1985. In 1986, whilst in Sydney, Australia, he met a Sunday Times journalist and revealed knowledge of the Israeli nuclear weapons programme before accompanying the journalist to London. It was during his time in London that the Israeli Government decided to capture Vanunu and hatched a plan to remove him from UK territory by getting an undercover Mosad agent to pretend to be an American tourist, named Cindy who Vanunu agreed to accompany to Rome. In Rome he was drugged and freighted back to Israeli where he was imprisoned for treason and confined for 18 years, including eleven years of solitary confinement.

 During the Congress, a demonstration was organised to the Israeli Embassy in London where a petition would be handed in asking for clemency for Mr Vananu. A significant number of the delegates signed the petition including fellow Nobel Prize winners, Dorothy Hodgkin and Joseph Rotblat.

The following summer, Wilkins received a reply from the Israeli Government's Ministry of Justice:


Campaign condemning gas attacks on Kurdish civilians

The Halabja massacre is now well known event due in part to the build up to the Second Iraq war and the fall of Sadam Hussain's regime. However, at the time of their occurence the international response was ambiguous with some international media coverage and western governmental officials siding with the official Iraqi line that no poison gas attacks were used against the Kurdish people. Wilkins sent a letter to the Iraqi ambassador in London and recieved a detailed reply with a number of attachments. The letter provides evidence of the divided media coverage and general lack of facts available allowing for passionate denial of any use of chemical weapons and a dismissal of the claims as part of an anti-Iraqi conspiracy. 

Example of the Second International Scientists' Congress petition against the Iraqi government after the chemical attack on the Kurdish city of Halabja.

Objectifying DNA

  The artefacts within the combined papers of the Maurice Wilkins and Biophysics collection include some of the most striking items in our holdings. Correspondence may have warmth and wit and the experimental notebooks may actually give the how and why but nothing beats the sheer visual punch of the DNA wire model or a X-ray diffraction camera. The artefacts are all the more impressive due to the diversity that the collection holds. Highlights include: original DNA fibres supplied by the Swiss biochemist, Rudolf Signer, which were the main source of DNA used in the X-ray diffraction experiments by Rosalind Franklin and Raymond Gosling; several X-ray diffraction cameras including the micro camera used to obtain "Photo 51", the picture of B structure DNA that so sharply showed a helical structure of DNA; DNA models and diagrams that the Biophysics Unit used to construct and refine more detailed models of DNA, with the pride and joy being the several metre long roll of the DNA molecular model ceremoniously nicknamed the "DNA toilet paper". These are a few of our favourite things and they are joined by many other items that directly relate to DNA and previous microscopic research carried out on the subject.

A few of the DNA related artefacts at King's Archives such as the single fibre X-ray camera used by Rosalind Franklin, glass vials containing original DNA samples used in the X-ray diffraction experiments, DNA diagram and Biophysics photo index

The collection has a remarkable degree of preserved DNA samples from the 1950s that not only include the Rudolf Signer Calf Thymus DNA that produced excellent B configuration X ray patterns sample but also DNA samples prepared from other scientists such as Erwin Chargaff and Leonard Hamilton which used a variety of other DNA sources like bacterial cultures and human DNA.

Image of a molecular model of DNA reproduced for the 40th anniversaryof the discovery of the double helix at King's College London

Two new Flickr sets taken from 35mm mounted slide series. Only a small sample of over thousand images that were digitally captured over the last two months. Highlights include high quality images of Rosalind Franklin, x-ray diffraction images and models of DNA and images relating to Maurice Wilkins' involvement in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.

"Dear M": the transatlantic DNA collaboration of Maurice Wilkins and Leonard Hamilton

This week's post calls attention to a series of correspondence written in the 1950s that documents the DNA research carried by Wilkins and his group at King's College London from 1953 to1960. The correspondence is with Dr Leonard D Hamilton, a British medical researcher and pathologist based in the United States who worked for the Sloan Kettering Institute for Cancer Research and later the Brookhaven National Laboratory. He provided DNA samples to Wilkins at King's from 1952 into the 1960s. As my title suggests the two were firm friends and their letters are refreshingly candid. Although these letters do not document the breakthrough research on the structure of the double helix like the similar correspondence between Wilkins and Crick they do give us a good picture of how Wilkins coped with the news and life thereafter.

DNA Samples: Supply and Demand

In 1953, Leonard Hamilton became the principal provider of DNA for the King's team. Samples had previously been provided by a host of other international scientists such as Rudolf Signer, Erwin Chargaff and Harriet Ephrussi and there was a great pressure to produce better DNA samples now it had been established that DNA was the basis of genes.Wilkins and his team were also under pressure to provide a more detailed double helical model to confirm that the structure was correct and not an equally valid alternative structure.

Figure 1: Photocopy of a letter from Wilkins to Hamilton, dated 28 May 1953: Wilkins thanks Hamilton for the DNA sample taken from a mouse sarcoma and generally expresses an eagerness to press on with further DNA research.

 In the above letter, Wilkins shows his excitement over the diffraction image obtained using the S-180 mouse sarcoma sample. He also expresses the need for greater quantities and variant salts and solutions that becomes a constant theme of this correspondence, as this quotation from a letter from Wilkins on the 9 June 1954 reveals:

"As I thought I made clear, what we need is better DNAs and hence I was very disappointed to find all the samples you sent recently were no better than the usual quality. We have not the time to test laboriously numerous samples in the hope one might be good. The three dry samples were have had already and those in solution, owning to a lack of warning, arrived at this end and were held at the airport for several days and appear to have deteriorated". 

The problem of the supply of demand of DNA were exacerbated by the trans-Atlantic nature of the partnership. Communication was the biggest issue. Before the days of global mass-communication, the main medium for communication was by letter or telegram (international telephone calls had only recently been introduced and were very expensive). The frustration was felt on both sides of the Atlantic especially with the additional pressures of journal and conference deadlines. Despite these stresses, they made progress as this quote from Wilkins on 5 November 1954 states:

"The 10 week exposure came off today and is a great success. it is one of the biggest improvements we have ever had in A pictures and is very much better than the best before. Will send a copy soon and I hope I will spur you on to even better things...Good old Leonard!"

Living in the Shadow of the Watson-Crick Model

One of the reasons why these letters make compelling reading is the scattered references to the discovery of the Double Helix. In the letters we get a contemporary commentary on the initial impact of the discovery and personal opinions on some of the key characters such as Francis Crick, James Watson and Rosalind Franklin. Of particular interest is the response of Hamilton who considered that Wilkins and King's College London Biophysics Unit had been hard done by Watson and Crick's model.

Figure 2: Letter from Leonard Hamilton to Wilkins dated October 12 1954: In this letter, Hamilton describes a visit from Rosalind Franklin and also his plan to air off a little "pro-Wilkins propaganda!" at a nucleic acids conference. 
 From the correspondence, it is clear that the battles and wounds caused by the discovery are still fresh but the scientific interest in the findings ( such as the journal Scientific American in Figure 2) are already calling for a narrative of the discovery. Hamilton's repeated opposition to calling the double helix the Watson-Crick model is an example of this increasing scientific interest and his own attempts to inform the American scientific community of the role that King's Biophysics Unit played in its creation. 

Wilkins' own initial thoughts and feelings were somewhat more ambigious. For example, his assessment of Francis Crick in the letter shown in Figure 1 states:

"Taken the Watson Crick model with a grain of salt. Francis is quite certain he can solve all the problems of the universe by pure thought and his lack of facts had lost him many friends temporarily until he recovers from DNA hysteria. I am very fond of Francis but he can be a bit much at times and he can be a ruthless careerist when he thinks it suits him. but keep that quiet to ourselves. We both like him a lot so there is no harm saying this to you".

His reaction is in line with his famous letter to Crick on hearing the discovery where he called Crick and Watson a couple of "old rogues" but accepted the model gracefully. Yet in this letter he does admit a degree of resentment over the Crick's "careerist" tendencies but not enough to irreprecibly damage their friendship. 

Finals thoughts

The correspondence between these two friends is of great reading for anyone interested in the story of the double helix and the DNA research carried out at King's College London. By being both a commentary and account of the DNA research undertaken at King's in the fifties the letters acts as an informal guide to the work being carried out and excellent source of information of the different DNA salts and samples. For me, however, the best aspect of the letters is the openess and informality that Wilkins shares with his friend about his life and research.  

Figure 3: Leonard Hamilton and Maurice Wilkins together in the 1960s.

Final words

"Do please reply soon. The nature of the gene depends on it. What piffle. M"

DNA on Display: Strandlines community visits King's Archive

 On 23 February 2011, King's College London Archives hosted a local event organised by the Strandlines Digital Community. A diverse group spent the afternoon exploring many of the treasures of our archives including artifacts and documents from our DNA collection. Information and anecdotes about the collection were provided by Patricia Methven, Head of King's College Archives and senior archivist Geoff Browell. A project blog on the Strandlines website provides a more comprehensive coverage of the day plus feedback from a number of visitors (

Strandlines event at King's College London archives on the 23 February 2011

As the DNA & Social Responsibility project assistant, I was delighted to see the level of interest and enthusiasm for the DNA collection, whether it was copies of 'Photo 51' or the 'wire model of DNA'. Not only were people awe-struck by the beauty and importance of DNA artefacts and photographs but they were also charmed by the more personal items of our collection such as 'Radium Island', the boyhood adventure story by Maurice Wilkins. Overall, it was good to see that visitors come away appreciating the long tradition of scientific innovation at King's and the beneficial role that the archives can play in the local community.

Short and Simple (ish) Guide to X-ray Diffraction

  X-ray diffraction (or X-ray crystallography) was the chief physical method used to determine the structure of DNA. In this post, I will briefly and as simply as I can (which with my non-scientific background should not be a problem!) explain what x-ray diffraction technique is and its relative importance to the overall discovery.

What does X-ray diffraction actually mean?
 X-ray diffraction is the method of projecting a beam of X-ray radiation at a target object and through to a photographic film on the far side. A series of spots appear on the photographic film following this exposure, which is formed by the x-ray radiation diffracting off the structure that they passed through. These diffraction patterns give an indication of the general structure of the object (such as an inorganic crystal or macro- molecule such as DNA) which can then be delineated using complex mathematical formulas.

Why use X-rays in the first place?
The reason why X-ray beam is required in the first place is that atoms are too small (0.1nm between them, bearing in mind that 1 millimetre = 1000000 nanometres) to be revealed using visible light and therefore could not be viewed by a light microscope (even an electron microscope does not possess the required magnification). X-ray radiation fits the appropriate wavelength to be diffracted by the object and produce visible results.   

What causes the diffraction of the X-ray beams?
What the X-ray beam are diffracting is not the entire atom but the orbiting electrons (one of the component parts of an atom) that are close enough to the core (nucleus) of the atom to give a good indication of the structure of the unit cell (the term used for the repeating unit found in crystals and macromolecules). The end image is known as an electron density map of that unit cell. However due to the incredibly weak image a single molecule would produce, a crystalline structure is used instead, for example common salt (NaCl), since a crystalline structure provides a huge number of molecules arranged in the same orientation and therefore produces the same scattering effect on the X-ray beams. 

In this diagram, the diffraction of the X-ray beam causes an image with a helical arrangement to form as all the DNA molecules in a fibre are aligned in the same direction.


X-ray diffraction of nucleic acids at King’s College London from 1950 to 1953 
 X-ray diffraction studies on DNA began in June 1950 when Maurice Wilkins asked PhD student Raymond Gosling to assist him in diffracting the DNA fibre samples prepared by the Swiss biochemist, Rudolf Signer. Fibre diffraction did not usually provide good quality images because of the thinness of the fibres and therefore a very small mass to scatter the radiation. Nevertheless, the fibres’ remarkable uniformity when wetted allowed Wilkins to manipulate them into a bundle and mount them on a wire frame to obtain x-ray diffraction images. The initial images showed promise but Wilkins and Gosling were greatly assisted by J T Randall’s own experience with X-ray diffraction.  He advised how the surrounding air could affect the x-ray scattering. The solution was to pass hydrogen through the camera and control the relative humidity of the sample.  With this in place, the resulting images were much sharper and showed a clear crystalline diffraction pattern.
X-ray diffraction pattern obtained by M H F Wilkins and R Gosling in late 1950 showing a clear crystalline arrangement.

It was in late 1950 that the theoretical physicist Alec Stokes first noticed an interesting observation from the images. He realised that there was no diffraction at all along the length of the molecules: a sign that DNA might be helical.  However, the King’s College team needed far sharper images to confirm this hypothesis. This required a new X-ray camera that could work on single fibres.  Through a fortunate coincidence, Werner Ehrenberg and W E Spears had just developed one at Birkbeck: this was generously loaned to the King’s College team.

Before the new camera was set up, it was decided that Rosalind Franklin, who was joining the laboratory from Paris, would replace Wilkins in producing the x-ray diffraction images with the continued assistance of Raymond Gosling. Both Stokes and Wilkins continued working on the problem with the latter embarking on some rough tests with the old X-ray diffraction camera on various DNA specimens that produced an observed “X” crossed pattern. The X pattern of diffraction was created by the x-ray radiation scattering at right angles off the "zigzag" structure of the DNA chain.  This interpretation was further supported when Franklin and Gosling produced the first “B” structure X-ray patterns in the late summer of 1951. This was a crucial development as it showed two observed states of DNA: crystalline “A” and semi-crystalline “B” (the best B structure diffraction photograph became known as “Photo 51”). The photos also supported the predicted observed readings of a helix that Alec Stokes had developed using the mathematical technique known as Bessel functions.
Plot of Bessel Functions for a smooth helix, named "Waves at Bessel-on-sea" by Alec Stokes who completed the calculations for the diagram over a single train journey.

It was now Maurice Wilkins and Rosalind Franklin disagreed over the direction of the research in finding the overall structure. Wilkins was keen on hypothetical model building while Franklin favoured a more systematic study of the structure. This parting of ways can be partially explained as stemming from the limitations of the x-ray diffraction process itself. For example, the evidence from the photos clearly pointed to a helical structure but this begged question: what type of helix? Helices in nature could occur in single, double and even triple strands and there was no clear indication, which was the right number. This is why the King’s College London attempt at model building proved to be a failure when the model made by Bruce Fraser showed a triple helix based on the chemical readings but was unable to fit with the rest of the x-ray data. A crucial piece of the puzzle was missing and related closely to DNA’s function of providing the genetic material for life: it was only when Jim Watson and Francis Crick came up with the base pair hypothesis that the double helix seemed the ideal form. 

In this diagram, we can see the general similarity between a single and a double helix.

X-ray diffraction studies undertaken at King's College London provided part of the experimental structural data needed to solve the general structure of the DNA double helix. Yet, as important as these observations were other methods and disciplines were of equal importance in unravelling the overall structure, in particular the biochemical work of Erwin Chargaff and the biological insight of Jim Watson. X-ray diffraction work on DNA at King’s did not finish with the unveiling of the structure in March 1953 but continued for another decade as Wilkins and his team worked to test to the correctness of the "Watson-Crick" model. 

Campaign to declassify Porton Down laboratory

  In 1968, an intense public opposition to chemical and biological weapons existed in the United Kingdom. This state of affairs was created by public anger and opposition to their use by the American government in the Vietnam conflict. Members of the public and environmental and disarmament groups became increasingly suspicious of the microbiological research establishment (MRE) at Porton Down, which was suspected of producing nerve gas. A campaign began to declassify the MRE at Porton Down.

 The campaign starting point was on 18 July 1968 with Labour M.P. Tam Dalyell's parliamentary question: should the Porton laboratory be transferred from the Ministry of Defence to the Ministry of Health and its work be made declassified? Maurice Wilkins and fellow Nobel Prize winners Cecil F Powell and Fred Sanger wrote to Prime Minister Harold Wilson in support and followed it up by orchestrating a press-campaign involving fellow Nobel Prize winners and Royal Society Fellows.

Wilkins systematically wrote to his fellow scientists about the issue urging them to write to Wilson. He received replies from the likes of Dorothy Hodgkin, Max Perutz, Richard Synge, Conrad Waddington and Sir Lawrence Bragg.

a copy of the letter that Maurice Wilkins sent to his fellow scientists

 Some of those who responded declined to support the campaign, like his former biophysics department colleague, Dame Honor Fell. She, like many of those who declined, although sympathetic argued that the chemical and biological warfare research done by the microbiological research establishment had acted as a deterrent in the Second World War against potential German nerve gas attacks.

 However, the majority of scientists who were asked agreed to support the campaign and twenty-one fellows of the Royal Society, including eight Nobel Prize winners endorsed the campaign. The result of the press campaign and mounting student and public anger was an official open day of the facility announced by Wilson scheduled for the 23-25 October 1968. Maurice Wilkins was one of a number of scientists who were invited to attend and his archive retains a copy of the official brochure produced for the visit.

  Wilkins later recalled that “many scientists came on the Open Day and a more open-minded attitude to the work there seemed to be created. But we came away well aware that with weapons such as these it was difficult to tell what research was for offensive use, and what was defensive, aimed at protecting people from them”.

  Here at King’s College London we have several collections on the work carried out at Porton Down and chemical and biological warfare in the Liddell Hart Centre Military Archives. Our large collection entitled “Gassed: British Chemical Warfare Experiments on Humans at Porton Down” the background research material for a book of the same name by journalist Rob Evans, charts the development of chemical and biological warfare there, the human experiments carried out and interviews with former employees of the lab. Another collection, Bad trip to Edgewood,  provides information on research carried at Porton Down as well as extensive transcripts and notes on chemical and biological warfare research carried by the US Government from 1955 to 1975.

Radium Island: A short story by Maurice Wilkins, aged eleven

Sometimes when working in an archive it is possible to stumble upon items that are truly unexpected, such as ‘Radium Island’. This charming story by a schoolboy Maurice Wilkins (written circa 1928 when he was eleven years old) tells of the adventure of Hugh O'Brien and Ronald Chrisp as they try to escape 'Radium Island'. What makes Radium Island interesting is not only its prescient title, given Maurice Wilkins' later work on the atom bomb "Manhattan Project", but also the classically boyish obsession with comics, new technology and war. It predates the first of W E Johns’ ‘Biggles’ stories by around four years.

Title page of Radium Island: The short story was written in a school exercise book for Wlyde Green College, Birmingham, the school Wilkins attended when his family moved to Birmingham and was probably written in 1928 (according to the older Maurice's recollection when he would have been eleven). The "Plan" refers to a map of Radium Island that can see be seen below. 

Map of Radium Island: This rather technical looking map of Radium Island could almost be mistaken for an authentic representation until you notice some of the captions such as "where the duel was fought" or "sign of the green dagger". However, if you were to try to find "Radium Island" using the longitude and latitude readings you would actually find the Cook Islands in the Pacific Ocean.

As the above map suggests Maurice Wilkins was quite a meticulous and technically adapt schoolboy. Already at this age he was creating model boats, cars and planes in his father's workshop inspired to some extent by the magazine The Modern Boy, with its reporting of powerful fast new machines like the one time like "world record breaking car Major Segrave's 1000 horsepower Sunbeam". This fascination with science and technology crops up throughout the story, including this oddly accurate geological description of the presence of radium:

"Chrisp was sitting looking blankly at the wall, when all of a sudden he sprang up and grabbed O'Brien by the shoulder and made him look at the shining vein of carnotite which yields radium situated in the opposite wall!"

For all non-geologists, carnotite is the mineral deposit that contains both uranium and radium ore. Who knew? Maurice Wilkins aged eleven.

Beginning of Radium Island where Chrisp and O'Brien are held captive by the natives on the island but discover Radium in their prison

Illustration of airplane: One of three drawings of airplanes in the story. Rather wonderfully, the text describes how he had bought the plane broken from an adventurer who had "bad luck with it" and reconstructed, then flew it, ran out petrol, crashed, was rescued, mended it again and then did not use it again for lack of petrol. 

Maurice Wilkins and social responsibility in science: In his own words

In the previous post, I outlined some of the organisations that Maurice Wilkins was involved with that promoted social responsibility in science. In this post, I would like to cover Maurice Wilkins own thoughts on this subject and how they developed and changed in his lifetime.

“The Crisis in Science”

It was during the sixties that Maurice Wilkins entered the public debate regarding the value and implications of science and society. His 1962 Nobel Prize gave him the freedom and authority to “consider the wider role of science in life”. In his autobiography, he states how he found the global political situation made it increasingly difficult to continue his “quiet, steady biological work”.  His awareness of the risks posed by the Cold War and the dangers of weapons of mass destruction is evident in his opening address to the “Social Impact of Modern Biology” conference held at the Friend’s House, London in 1970:
 “The crisis in science today has not only direct bearing on the question of our survival but is of deep significance to our fundamental beliefs and at value judgements

The newspaper, the "Journal American" reporting Maurice Wilkins' Nobel Prize award. Other news that day includes: an escalation in military tension between the US and the USSR over Cuba ( in what was later known as the Cuban Missile Crisis), US spacecraft Ranger 5 lifted off on its lunar mission while also in the news the first law suit over the prescription of thylidomide to pregnant mothers resulting in deformed children was also under way. 

Underlining this crisis was a fundamental change in scientific thought, as Wilkins went on to elaborate:

Yet even [though] scientists continue to work undisturbed, their attitudes to their work have, since the war, significantly changed. Although many scientists regard their work unquestioningly, in general there has been a perceptible change. The main cause is probably the Bomb: scientists no longer have their almost arrogant confidence in the value of science. At the same time non-scientists openly question the value of science.

He, like a significant number of his colleagues on the Manhattan Project, regretted his involvement with the development of the Atomic Bomb. He felt that the bomb was a product of a compartmentalized pure science divorced from any concerns of ethics and responsibility. Wilkins resolved that this division should be removed to make science “better related to man’s wider hopes and needs: dehumanizing aspects of science would be reduced, science would be a force for changing and improving society and social responsibility would be implicit in the nature of science itself

These sentiments regarding the crisis in science were widespread and echoed by other speakers at the “Social Impact of Modern Biology” conference, including the French geneticist, Jacques Monod, and the biologist, Jacob Bronowski. The historian of science Jon Agar, in his 2008 article in the Journal of the British Society for the History of Science, on the change in science in the sixties views the crisis in science as a combination of three pervasive 'waves' in the scientific community: the first 'wave' produced scientific experts and public divergent opinions; the second ‘wave’ was the creation of organisations and movements (such as the British Society for Social Responsibility in Science) that could act as a forum to debate and question scientific practice, and the final wave reflected the pervasive attitude of 'inward inquiry' that questioned the concept of scientific knowledge and its value to society.
Wilkins considered the development of the Bomb and chemical and biological weapons were an abuse of science, but believed that it could be redeemed by shifting its purpose back to the needs of society.

“The man in the white coat knew best”

In the years following the 1970 conference, teaching on the new “Social Impact of the Biosciences” course at King’s College London gave Wilkins an opportunity to develop and share his views.  In a 1998 lecture, Wilkins reflected on the attitudes of the scientific community in 1970:
…In 1970 many scientists saw science as giving certainty and truth; without science we would live largely in ignorance and superstition. Such scientists also had a simple faith that science applied would inevitably give us a better life. Roughly speaking, the scientist in the white coat knew best. That simple faith has considerably decreased. An important factor in this has been change in public attitudes to science; science has been criticised and open anti-science attitudes have increased. People are now less likely to believe ‘the man in a white coat knows best’ (in any case it is rather more likely than before that the scientist is a woman). It is important to realise that modern criticism of science has often arisen from the work of scientists e.g. on problems of pollution, climate change and environmental damage. Without that scientific work we would be barely aware that the problems existed. Also, solving these considerable problems depends considerably on continuing research. Similarly, medical studies have stimulated growth in broader, ‘mind-body  approach to patients rather than concentration on treatment with drugs. Although science has become increasingly part of people’s lives, the people have tended to become more critical of the effects of science in the modern world.“
Wilkins’ attitude to science was influenced by his research in the historical, philosophical and sociological ideas that the course explored. On the development of the concept of pure science, he wrote:

During the Scientific Revolution of the 17th century pure and applied science were not regarded as separable. Francis Bacon (1561-1626) believed the value of science (and in fact its very truth) derived from the beneficial application of science. But in the early 19th century the snobbish demands of educating the upper classes in universities, especially in Germany, required that university science be freed from its links with ‘vulgar; industry (e.g. soap boiling) and made socially respectable as a pure academic discipline like classics or philosophy. Pure scientists became proud of the idea that their science might have no application at all. The idea of pure scientific knowledge became associated with the idea of absolute knowledge which could be separated from the way it was obtained and from the way it might be applied and was therefore value-free, (and based only on unbiased observation and logic).

One important element to Maurice Wilkins’ attitude to social responsibility in science is his belief in the social conditioning of science, which suggests that as science is a human activity it would be conditioned by the social and cultural environment where it is carried out. This is important because “science dominates our whole culture, not just as a result of its direct applications, but because it influences general thinking and attitudes to life”. Therefore, being able to judge the nature and value of scientific knowledge has become ever more desirable. His own understanding bridged both the objective and relative understanding of knowledge:

There are two processes, somewhat opposed, operating in science: there is the essential element of objectivity and rationality recognised by tradition, and without which science could not have built up an enormous set of coherent knowledge. On the other hand scientists’ thinking is always to an extent influenced by cultural forces and prejudice. The ‘logic’ of science can go far in ruling out inappropriate ways of thinking, thus enabling science to lead us to a partial view of the truth. The debate about social conditioning of science is about the relative importance of the objective rationality of science and the subjective conditioning of thought. This will vary with the situation.”

Wilkins’ key example of social conditioning of science was the work of the Soviet biologist Trofim Lysenko (1898-1976), whose own genetic theories were promoted in the USSR from 1928 to 1964 instead of the universally accepted Mendelian genetics. Lysenkoism was encouraged as it politically and philosophically was in keeping with Stalinist Russia. For Wilkins, it was the suppression of dissent and the central dogmatism that was the most corrosive aspect of the Lysenko affair. Yet the same charge he suggests (but not in such extreme fashion) can be made in those in the contemporary scientific world:

"while we condemn this we should recognise somewhat similar, thought not so extreme, dogmatism when some molecular biologist pronounces that human beings are ‘nothing but’ molecular machinery or when the psychologists take it for granted that IQ gives us a measure of intelligence on which we can base educational policy. Scientific knowledge need not be unavoidable truth. We should respect it but at the same time recognise its limitations, we should not jump to conclusions about its wider significance and we need to be very cautious in drawing parallels between animals and humans.

To conclude…

“There can be no complete certainties in science but there can be a continuing process of enquiry and exploration"