Professor Maurice Wilkins

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The Independent Online

"You have a duty to go to Porton," Maurice Wilkins told us, writes Tam Dalyell [further to the obituary by Professor Watson Fuller, 9 October].

It was the autumn of 1965, and the first Commons Select Committee on Science and Technology was discussing what topic we ought to address next, following our major report on the nuclear power industry. I suggested we look at the defence research establishments such as the Royal Radar Establishment at Malvern, Serl (the Services Electronics Research Laboratory) at Baldock and the Chemical Defence Establishment at Porton Down.

This met, hardly surprisingly, with resistance by defence ministers. So I persuaded the chairman of the committee, Arthur Palmer, and the leading Conservative members Sir Harry Legge-Bourke and Airey Neave to come with me to King's College London to visit the prestigious laboratory of Maurice Wilkins, and hear what they had to say.

We were struck by the intensity of Wilkins's political beliefs. In particular that we should go to Porton. Science must be geared to the promotion of peace. Legge-Bourke and Neave were taken aback by the vehemence of Wilkins's developed Pugwash-CND views.

Asked about what difference a Nobel Prize had made to his life, with a gentle smile he responded:

People now listen to what I say about global issues. And I'm at ease with myself. The Cambridge examiners in the Natural Sciences Tripos were not unjustified in awarding me a lower Second, but a Nobel Prize makes up for it. One of the most contrite letters I've ever received came from one of the examiners, then retired. I had spent so much time on the political situation in the late 1930s that my work suffered. I told the examiner I was not sure that I had made the wrong choice!