At that time Wilkins also introduced Francis Crick to the importance of DNA. Wilkins knew that proper experiments on the threads of purified DNA would require better x-ray equipment. Wilkins ordered a new x-ray tube and a new microcamera. Before the DNA sample from Signer was available, Gosling had been trying to make x-ray diffraction images of sperm. However, Franklin did not start using the new equipment until September 1951. By the summer of 1950 Randall had arranged for a three year research fellowship that would fund Rosalind Franklin in his laboratory. Franklin was delayed in finishing her work in Paris. Late in 1950, Randall wrote to Franklin to inform her that rather than work on protein, she should take advantage of Wilkin's preliminary work and that she should do x-ray studies of DNA fibers made from Signer's DNA. Early in 1951 Franklin finally arrived. Wilkins was away on holiday and missed an initial meeting at which Raymond Gosling stood in for him along with Alexander R. Stokes, who, like Crick, would solve the basic mathematics that make possible a general theory of how helical structures diffract x-rays. No work had been done on DNA in the laboratory for several months; the new x-ray tube sat unused, waiting for Franklin. Franklin ended up with the DNA from Signer, Gosling became her PhD student and she had the expectation that DNA x-ray diffraction work was her project. Wilkins returned to the laboratory expecting that Franklin would be his collaborator and that they would work together on the DNA project that he had started. Franklin felt that DNA was now her project and would not collaborate with Wilkins, who then pursued parallel studies.
By November 1951 Wilkins had evidence that DNA in cells as well as purified DNA had a helical structure. Alex Stokes had solved the basic mathematics of helical diffraction theory and thought that Wilkin's x-ray diffraction data indicated a helical structure in DNA. Wilkins met with Watson and Crick and told them about his results. This information from Wilkins along with additional information gained by Watson when he heard Franklin talk about her research during a King's College research meeting, stimulated Watson and Crick to create their first molecular model of DNA, a model with the phosphate backbones at the center. Upon viewing the model of the proposed structure, Franklin told Watson and Crick that it was wrong. Franklin knew that because of basic chemical principles the hydrophilic backbones should go on the outside of the molecule where they could interact with water. Crick tried to get Wilkins to continue with additional molecular modeling efforts, but Wilkins did not take this approach. During 1952, Franklin also refused to participate in molecular modeling efforts and continued to work on step-by-step detailed analysis of her x-ray diffraction data (Patterson synthesis). By Spring of 1952, Franklin had received permission from Randall to request permission to transfer her fellowship so that she could leave King's College and work in John Bernal's laboratory. However, Franklin remained at King's College for another year.
By early 1953, it was clear that Franklin would simply drop her DNA work at the end of her fellowship that summer, or even sooner due to illness. Linus Pauling had published a proposed but incorrect structure of DNA, making the same basic error that had been made by Watson and Crick a year earlier. Some of those working on DNA in the United Kingdom, feared that Pauling would quickly solve the DNA structure once he recognized his error and put the backbones of the nucleotide chains on the outside of a model of DNA. After March 1952 Franklin concentrated on the x-ray data for the A-form of less hydrated DNA while Wilkins tried to work on the B-form. Wilkins was handicapped because Franklin had all of the good DNA. Wilkins got new DNA, but it was not as good as the original sample he had used in 1950 and which Franklin continued to use. About his only new results were for biological samples like sperm cells, which seemed to also suggest a helical structure for DNA. In the middle of 1952 Wilkins had for a time abandoned further DNA work when Franklin reported to him that her results made her doubt the helical nature of the A-form. Wilkins feared, the data suggesting a helical structure might just be an artifact.
In early 1953 Watson visited King's College and Wilkins showed him a high quality image of the B-form x-ray diffraction pattern, now nicknamed photo 51, that had been produced by Franklin in March 1952. With the knowledge that Pauling was working on DNA and had submitted a model of DNA for publication, Watson and Francis Crick mounted one more concentrated effort to deduce the structure of DNA. Crick gained access to a progress report from King's College that included useful information from Franklin about the features of DNA she had deduced from her x-ray diffraction data from Max Perutz, his thesis supervisor. Watson and Crick published their proposed DNA double helical structure in a paper in the journal Nature in April 1953. In this paper Watson and Crick acknowledged that they had been "stimulated by.... the unpublished results and ideas" of Wilkins and Franklin.
In recognition of the contribution from King's College, Watson and Crick agreed that Wilkins, Stokes and Wilson and Franklin and Gosling should each publish their x-ray diffraction work, which supported the proposed Crick-Watson model, in separate articles in the same issue of Nature.
Wilkins and others went on to repeat and extend much of Franklin's work, and produced much evidence to support the helical model of Crick and Watson.
Wilkins married his second wife Patricia Ann Chidgey in 1959. They had four children, Sarah, George, Emily and William; he had a son by his previous marriage, to an art student called Ruth in California.
In 1960 he was presented with the American Public Health Association's Albert Lasker Award, and in 1962 he was made a Companion of the British Empire. Also in 1962 he shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with Watson and Crick.
He published his autobiography, "The Third Man of the Double Helix," in 2003, but does not specifically credit Stokes and Wilson as co-authors of their paper in "Nature". Whether this was deliberate on his part or just down to rather poor sub-editing by OUP is not known.
The wording on the new DNA sculpture (which was donated by James Watson) outside Clare College's Thirkill Court, Cambridge, England is
a) on the base:
i) "These strands unravel during cell reproduction. Genes are encoded in the sequence of bases." ii) "The double helix model was supported by the work of Rosalind Franklin and Maurice Wilkins."
b) on the helices:
i) "The structure of DNA was discovered in 1953 by Francis Crick and James Watson while Watson lived here at Clare."
ii) "The molecule of DNA has two helical strands that are linked by base pairs Adenine - Thymine or Guanine - Cytosine."