Maurice Wilkins (1987) - Ideals of Science and Medicine

Maurice Wilkins (1987)

Ideals of Science and Medicine

Maurice Wilkins (1987)

Ideals of Science and Medicine

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25 years after having received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine together with Francis Crick and James Watson for „their discoveries concerning the molecular structure of nucleic acids and its significance for information transfer in living material", Maurice Wilkins still had not reconciled with James Watson, at least not with the latter’s personal account of the discovery of the structure of DNA in his best-selling book „The double helix“ (working title: „Honest Jim“). In this lecture, Wilkins compares Watson with a „trickster hero of folk stories“, explaining that „in old folk stories there is always a naughty man who does tricks and is not very honest.“ Even if Watson later „felt a responsibility to encourage and build up this new field of research which he himself had done so much to create“, Wilkins argues, he „is hardly a hero of science quite like Einstein or Niels Bohr“.
But this is not a lecture about James Watson or about Rosalind Franklin’s X-ray data and why Wilkins showed them to Watson nor about who done whom wrong in the race for unraveling the structure of DNA[1][2]. It is a lecture about heroism, in which Wilkins explores to what extent the work of scientists and doctors can be compared to the deeds of ancient heroes. „The hero myth symbolizes the struggle of men and women to transcend the limits of normal forms of living“, he says. „In a similar way, we have the myth of the scientist who struggles to obtain truth and to overcome ignorance and superstition, and the doctor of course struggles to restore health and save life.“ In this sense, Wilkins identifies Pythagoras as the first scientific hero.
Scientific truth will never be final, because the knowledge of an era is continuously replaced or complemented by the knowledge of the next. Nevertheless, science strives to form unity and aims to gain universal knowledge. It predicts, correlates and enables us to explain the natural world, as among others the theories of Democritus, Copernicus, Newton, Maxwell or Darwin prove. Yet the example of Darwinism also shows how politicians for the justification of injustice can abuse scientific insights, be it in capitalism, socialism or Nazism, Wilkins warns. An antidote against this danger is to share knowledge and build a global community beyond national borders, in which the character traits of an ideal scientist thrive: Honesty, impartiality, open-mindedness, absence of self-interest and humility. In this respect, Wilkins regards Einstein as the greatest of all heroes of science, because he saw „moral truth closely connected with scientific truth“ and was „just as much concerned with problems of war and social justice as he was with problems of science“.
While ideals are inspiring, they should not tempt scientists to assume that they are „automatically superior human beings“. In contrast, scientists are fallible as everybody, and „we often use our ideals to cover up our own moral failures“, in the worst case to rationalize evil deeds under pressure of political power. To live up to the ideals of science and medicine remains a great challenge, which requires almost heroic work. In facing this challenge, examples from history may give us orientation. Wilkins mentions the refusal of the British Medical Research Council to help Churchill build Anthrax bombs in World War II. And he concludes: „As I am speaking here in Germany to an audience consisting largely of German medical students, I think it is appropriate that I refer to the medical students at Munich who organized the White Rose movement and sacrificed their lives in opposing Nazi Policy.“

Joachim Pietzsch

[1] Cf. John Gribbin. Science. A history 1543 – 2001. London 2002, p. 562ff.
[2] Cf. On Maurice Wilkins and the race for DNA from Oregon State University http://scarc.library.oregonstate.edu/coll/pauling/dna/people/wilkins.html

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