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Maurice Wilkins’s letters to Francis Crick turn up

Francis Crick’s letters from the 1950s, supposedly thrown away
by `an over-zealous secretary’, have come to light in Sydney
Brenner’s papers. Alex Gann and Jan Witkowski found them when they
went through the Brenner archive. The secretary is exonerated. The
Crick Brenner office (they shared a room) was moved twice in the
early 1960s.

As one of Crick’s biographers I have done some interviews, for
example with the LA Times.

My main reaction is that this is a thrilling discovery that adds
lots of colour and enriches the story but does not rewrite history
in any fundamental way. Not that I have read all the letters

The star of the show is Maurice Wilkins, who always had a knack
for expressing himself in a spicey and perceptive way. Consider
this letter, written just after the debacle of December 1951 when
Crick and Watson were being warned off DNA after building a botched
model based on other people’s data, misremembered:

Dear Francis, This is just to say how
bloody browned off I am entirely and how rotten I feel about it all
and how entirely friendly I am (though it may horrible appear
differently). We are really between forces which may grind all of
us into little pieces……I had to restrain Randall from writing to
Bragg complaining about your behaviour. Needless to say
did restrain him, but so far as your security
with Bragg is concerned it is probably much more important to pipe
down and build up the idea of a quiet steady worker who never
creates ‘situations’ than to collect all the credit for your
excellent ideas at the expense of good will.
And you
see it does make me a bit confused about our
discussions if you get too interested in everything which is
important; where I say confused I mean confused, I am now largely
incapable of any logical thinking in relation to polynucleotide
chains or anything.
And poor Jim – may I shed a
crocodile [INSERT: & very confused] tear?

Jim (Watson), by the way, emerges with great credit. His account
of then whole affair, in The Double Helix, shocked the world — and
especially Crick and Wilkins — with its warts-and-all depiction of
scientists as flawed, ambitious and not always nice human beings.
Watson was accused of sexism towards Rosalind Franklin. These
letters confirm every nuance of Watson’s realism. They also remind
us that it was especially Wilkins who could not get on with
Franklin. For example (Wilkins again):

There is also a silly muddle over
Franklin’s talk here. I got a big notice saying it was internal
only – just a discussion between colleagues who worked in the same
lab. Then a lot of notices went round about
the Colloquium and I took it for granted all had
had the other note. Hence [Pauline] Cowan’s remark to you. I think
that as the intention was to have it a private fight it would be
best to keep it entirely so, as I told Jim. It should be either
public or private. Let’s have some talks afterwards when the air is
a little clearer. I hope the smoke of witchcraft will soon be
getting out of our eyes.P
.s. Tell Jim the answer to his
question ‘When did you last speak to her’ is this
. The entire conversation consisted of one word from

There’s also a fascinating glimpse of how terrified Crick was,
even after building the model of the double helix with Watson, that
Linus Pauling would ride in a pinch the whole thing. Wilkins to
Crick, March 1953:

If Rosie wants to see Pauling, what the
hell can we do about it? If we suggested it would be nicer if she
didn’t that would only encourage her to do so. Why is every body so
terribly interested in seeing Pauling?
Now Raymond
[Gosling] wants to see Pauling too! To hell with it all.

Gann and Witkowski have made a fantastic discovery. It’s
almost like finding a trove of letters from Newton, Darwin or

By Matt Ridley | Tagged:  rational-optimist