Thirty kilometers east of Pahiatua and Eketahuna, but still 25 km shy of the Wairarapa coast, lies the tiny hamlet of Pongaroa. While Pongaroa may well be notable for other things, one indisputable claim to fame is that it is the birthplace of Maurice Hugh Frederick Wilkins, the scientist who shared the 1962 Nobel Prize in Medicine or Physiology with James Watson and Francis Crick for the discovery of the structure of deoxyribonucleic acid, or DNA, responsible for the transmission of hereditary characteristics from parents to offspring. (Curiously, another of the three Nobel laureates to have been born in New Zealand, Alan MacDiarmid, who was awarded the prize for chemistry in 2000, also began life in the Wairarapa not far from Pongaroa, in Masterton.)
Wilkins’ parents, Evilene and Edgar, emigrated to New Zealand from Ireland shortly after Edgar had qualified as a medical practitioner. They arrived in Petone early in 1913, and Edgar set up a practice there. The couple’s first child, Eithne, was born in 1914. After a time, the family moved to the remote hills of Pongaroa, where Maurice was born on December 15, 1916.
In that era, babies were frequently born on the butcher’s block, and Maurice came into the world this way. He was christened in St John’s Church on February 15, 1917. The Wilkins family shifted to Pahiatua in mid-1918, where Edgar developed a passion for preventative medicine in schools. Indeed, later that year he was appointed Director of School Hygiene for the nation, and consequently the family again moved, this time to Kelburn Parade, in Wellington.
Maurice, today aged 87 and the victim of a recent stroke, still remembers Wellington clearly, and fondly recalls family picnics in the surrounding countryside and at the beach. The memory of his first earthquake, and how his mother grabbed his baby sister, Jasmine, as things tumbled from the shelves, remains vivid. Wellington’s wind remains clear in his mind also, and the hazard it posed to light horse-drawn vehicles. The Wilkins family remained in Wellington until mid-1923, when they returned to Ireland, Edgar and Evilene being motivated by a desire to give their children a better education than was available in Wellington.
Edgar had strong and somewhat unorthodox ideas on education, believing young children to be better off learning from their own explorations of the world than turning to “second-hand knowledge from books.” As a result, neither Maurice nor Eithne received much in the way of formal schooling in New Zealand.
A second and perhaps even more significant reason for their departure lay in the clashes that Edgar was having with the authorities over his ideas on improving the health of New Zealand’s schoolchildren. He believed that decent living conditions and good nutrition were the keys to sound health, whereas other doctors seemed concerned only with the treatment of sick children in hospital.
After a short period back in Dublin, Edgar and Evilene decided that better job opportunities existed in England, so the family headed to London, where Edgar took a Diploma of Public Health at King’s College, London—the very place where Maurice was to carry out DNA research some 30 years later. Edgar then wished to practise preventative medicine in the poverty-stricken areas around Birmingham, and the family set up home in that city.
Maurice gained a scholarship to study at King Edward’s School, in Birmingham, and in 1935 went up to Cambridge University to study physics at St John’s College. There he became highly involved in the Cambridge Scientists Anti-War Group (CSAWG), and, like many other students of the era, joined the anti-fascist Communist Party, since his left-leaning tendencies were not satisfied by Labour. At Cambridge, Wilkins was tutored by the Australian Marcus Oliphant, who was Ernest Rutherford’s deputy. Rutherford, New Zealand’s first Nobel laureate, died in 1938 from septicaemia as a result of a fall from a ladder at his home.
Wilkins spent so much time working with the CSAWG that in 1938 he achieved only a lower second-class honours BA degree. In consequence, he was unable to raise support to pursue a PhD at Cambridge. Oliphant had moved to Birmingham and established his own laboratory, so Wilkins contacted him to see what positions might be available there. He obtained a job as a research assistant with John Randall, a physicist studying luminescence phenomena, and began working towards a doctorate.