Wilson, Allan, 1934-1991

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Wilson was a biochemist in the Dept. of Biochemistry, later Molecular and Cell Biology, at the University of California, Berkeley.

From the description of Allan Wilson papers, 1953-1998 (bulk 1962-1991). (University of California, Berkeley). WorldCat record id: 227494657

Biographical Information

Allan Wilson was born in Ngaruawahia, New Zealand, on October 18, 1934 and raised on a farm at Helvetia, Pukekohe. He began his education in New Zealand where he earned a B.S. in Zoology and Chemistry from Otago University. Wilson moved to the United States to pursue his graduate education, earning a M.S. from Washington State University in Zoology and Physiology and completing his Ph.D. in Biochemistry at the University of California, Berkeley (1961).

Upon completing his Ph.D., Wilson worked as a post-doctorate fellow at Brandeis University. In 1964, Wilson joined the faculty of the Department of Biochemistry (now the Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology) at UC Berkeley.

Allan Wilson first came to world attention when he published a paper titled Immunological Time-Scale For Human Evolution in Science magazine in December 1967. Together with doctoral student Vincent Sarich, Wilson argued that the origins of the human species could be seen through, what he termed, a "molecular clock" and, using this reasoning, the two deduced that the earliest proto-hominids evolved only five million years ago. Most contemporary anthropologists, who favored a date of around 25 million years, dismissed his work.

In the early 1980s, as his findings for the age of the proto-humans were starting to be more widely accepted, Wilson again dropped a bombshell on traditional anthropological thinking with his best known work with Rebecca Cann and Mark Stoneking on the so-called "Mitchocondrial Eve" hypothesis. By comparing differences in the mtDNA Wilson believed it was possible to estimate the time, and the place, modern humans first evolved. With his discovery that human mtDNA is genetically much less diverse than chimpanzee mtDNA, he concluded that modern human races had diverged recently from a single population while older human races such as Neanderthal, Java erectus and Pekin erectus had become extinct. He and his team compared mtDNA in people of different racial backgrounds and concluded that all modern humans evolved from one "lucky mother" in Africa about 200,000 years ago.

Despite the initial controversy of many of his theories, Wilson was well respected. He trained more than 200 graduate students and post-docs in his Berkeley laboratory. His lab published more than 300 papers. He was elected to the Royal Society of London, to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and was awarded the 3M Life Sciences Award and the MacArthur Prize.

Wilson was diagnosed with leukemia in 1990 and died on July 21, 1991, at the age of 56, while undergoing treatment for the disease.

-Largely taken from the Allan Wilson Centre Web Page (http://awcmee.massey.ac.nz/)

From the guide to the Allan Wilson papers, 1953-1998, bulk 1962-1991, (The Bancroft Library)

Archival Resources
Role Title Holding Repository
Place Name Admin Code Country
Human genetics
Mitochondrial DNA--Research
Human evolution


Birth 1934-10-18

Death 1991-07-21


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