Allan Wilson

Allan Wilson’s Scientific Legacy

Professor Allan Wilson
MacArthur Fellowship

Allan Wilson (1934 – 1991) was one of New Zealand’s greatest scientists; his innovative mind and creative talent shaped the field of molecular biology.  His many achievements are recognised in naming the Allan Wilson Centre after him.

Born in New Zealand, Wilson graduated with a Bachelor of Science in 1955 from the University of Otago, before moving to the United States. He gained a Master of Science in 1957 from Washington State University at Pullman, and a PhD in 1961 from the University of California, Berkeley. After postdoctoral studies in the early 1960s at Brandeis University, in Massachusetts, he took up a position to Berkeley, where he worked until his death in 1991.

Wilson was a prolific scientist, producing many publications with his collaborators and students. Amongst these, two landmark papers, published 20 years apart, stand out. Each literally re-wrote history. The publication in 1967 of ‘Immunological time-scale for human evolution’ in Science, co-authored with Vincent Sarich, changed our understanding of human ancestry. Wilson and Sarich’s research introduced the concept of the evolutionary or molecular clock, and found that humans and apes had a much more recent common ancestry than the dates suggested from previous studies of the fossil evidence.

Then, in 1987, with Rebecca Cann and Mark Stoneking, Wilson published ‘Mitochondrial DNA and human evolution’ in Nature. This paper used emerging molecular technology to illuminate the origins of modern humans – describing a ‘Mitochondrial Eve’, living about 200 000 years ago, from whom all people today are descended. As well as being revolutionary, both pieces of work have led to many further discoveries, and are still used today by evolutionary biologists worldwide. Wilson’s ideas underpin much of the work at the Allan Wilson Centre, including some exciting new projects.

Further information
To find out more about Allan Wilson and his work, watch ‘Allan Wilson: Evolutionary’ a 2008 documentary by George Andrews Productions, at NZ On Screen, the online showcase of New Zealand television, film and music video. learn more

Out of Africa

Professor Rebecca Cann
University of Hawaii

Allan Wilson's former graduate student Professor Rebecca Cann (University of Hawaii) gave a series of six lectures around New Zealand in August 2011 commemorating his life and work.  A recording of her lecture in Wellington on August 5th 2011 can be downloaded here. You can also hear her speaking with Kim Hill on Radio New Zealand's Saturday Morning, and read about her work in Allan Wilson’s lab in the 1970s and 1980s in this PLoS Genetics interview by Jane Gitschier.

Further information
AWC lecture recording
Radio New Zealand Rebecca Cann interview with Kim Hill
PLoS Genetics interview Rebecca Cann with Jane Gitschier

Human evolution and ‘Mitochondrial Eve’ resources developed by Allan Wilson Centre scientists:

  • Click here to explore ‘Recreate the Research’, an online resource created by Howard Ross. This fascinating resource allows anyone to explore Allan Wilson and Rebecca Cann’s ‘Mitochondrial Eve’ work in detail
  • Click here to go to Hilary Miller’s series of Microsoft Powerpoint presentations on human evolution which include descriptions of Allan Wilson’s pioneering work. These are suitable for general interest and senior secondary biology students