He was educated at the local council primary school and, after winning a County Scholarship in 1932, went to Todmorden Secondary School. There, he had the same physics teacher as Sir John Cockcroft, who received a Nobel Prize for “splitting the atom”.
In 1939 he obtained a Royal Scholarship for study at Imperial College, London, from where he graduated in 1941. In 1942 Professor Friedrich Adolf Paneth was recruiting young chemists for the nuclear energy project. Wilkinson joined and was sent out to Canada, where he stayed in Montreal and later Chalk River Laboratories until he could leave in 1946. For the next four years he worked with Professor Glenn T. Seaborg at Berkeley, California, mostly on nuclear taxonomy. He then became a Research Associate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and began to return to his first interest as a student - transition metal complexes of ligands such as carbon monoxide and olefins.
He was then at the Harvard University from September 1951 until he returned to England in December 1955, with a sabbatical break of nine months in Copenhagen. At Harvard, he still did some nuclear work on excitation functions for protons in cobalt, but had already begun to work on olefin complexes.
He was married, with two daughters.
He is well known for his invention of Wilkinson's catalyst RhCl(PPh3)3, and for the discovery of the structure of ferrocene. Wilkinson's catalyst is used industrially in the hydrogenation of alkenes to alkanes.
He received many awards, including the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1973 for his work on “organometallic compounds” (with Ernst Otto Fischer). He is also well known for writing, with F. Albert Cotton, "Advanced Inorganic Chemistry", often referred to simply as "Cotton and Wilkinson", one of the standard inorganic chemistry textbooks.