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Nobel Prize winner born 100 years ago in Pongaroa

A sculpture honouring Maurice Wilkins, in the scientist’s home town of Pongaroa. PHOTO/FILE
By Gerald Ford
This week the small north Wairarapa town of Pongaroa celebrates the 100th anniversary of the birth of one its most distinguished sons.
Maurice Wilkins, born at Pongaroa on December 15, 1916, was one a team of three to be awarded the Nobel Prize for medicine and physiology in 1962 — after the discovery of the double helix structure of DNA.
Wilkins’ initial work on X-Rays of DNA strands was foundational for the research of fellow Nobel Prize winners James Watson and Francis Crick, for whom the Watson-Crick model of DNA is named.
Wilkins is known as one of New Zealand’s most famous scientists, comparable in importance to Sir Ernest Rutherford who discovered the structure of the atom.
At Wilkins birth his father, Edgar Henry Wilkins, was a doctor living in Pongaroa, having moved there with his wife from Dublin.
Not long afterwards the family moved to Wellington, and when Maurice was six they returned to the United Kingdom.
After graduating as a physicist, Wilkins worked on the Manhattan project that led to the creation of the atomic bomb, but he later became an anti-nuclear campaigner and chose a different scientific path.
He became the assistant director of a new biophysics department at Kings College in London, where he worked with Watson and Crick on DNA research.
In Pongaroa, Wilkins is remembered with a sculpture showing the DNA structure, which was unveiled in March 2001.
There is also a historical display in the Pongaroa Hotel, compiled by the late Bernadine Meech.
The house where Wilkins was born is still standing, and is currently occupied by Jason and Vicky Clarke, who have lived there for the past 15 years.
A plaque commemorating Wilkins is on the front fence of the property.
Mrs Clarke said she understands the house was also used as a doctor’s surgery, and was a short distance away from the Dannevirke Hospital.
“I quite like the feel of this home,” she says.
“Our boys have done quite well, one of them science-wise … it could have been inspirational.”
In 2004 the Centre for Molecular Biodiscovery in Auckland — a research facility linked to Auckland University, was renamed the Maurice Wilkins Centre.

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