David Wright Wilson was born in Knoxville, Iowa. He attended Grinnell College and graduated in 1910. He then entered graduate school in the Department of Chemistry at the University of Illinois and received his M.S. in 1912. Next, Wilson moved to Yale University, where he studied nonprotein water-soluble nitrogen extractables from the muscles of a variety of marine life. He completed his Ph.D. work in 1914 and accepted a position with Walter Jones in the Physiological Chemistry Department at the Johns Hopkins Medical School. His work at Johns Hopkins was interrupted by World War I, and in the summer of 1917, Wilson started work as junior physiologist in the Bureau of Mines, investigating poisonous gases for the U.S. Army and Navy. In 1918, he accepted a commission as first lieutenant in the Sanitary Corps of the Army and left for England to test a treatment for the relief of edema following chlorine inhalation. Wilson was discharged in 1919 with the rank of captain.
In 1922, Wilson was appointed head of the Department of Physiology at the University of Pennsylvania. His research initially focused on acid-base studies, but after 1930 he turned his attention to nitrogenous extractives of muscle. During the next decade he published a number of papers on the occurrence, isolation, and structure of octopine, carnosine, and anserine and on the chemical synthesis and metabolism of 1-methyl histidine. Wilson also collaborated with Samuel Gurin and Carl Bachman on the isolation of a gonadotropic hormone from urine collected during pregnancy. When it was discovered that deuterium, 15N, and 13C could be used to study intermediary metabolism, Wilson used these isotopes to investigate the oxidation of fatty acids and acetoacetate, the metabolism of lactic acid and alanine, and the precursors of the purine and pyrimidine bases of nucleic acids. He retired as the chairman of the Department of Physiological Chemistry and became emeritus professor in 1957.
Wilson received many honors in recognition of his accomplishments and service to biochemistry. He was secretary (1924–1925), vice president (1952–1953), and president (1953–1953) of the American Society of Biological Chemists. He was a member of the editorial committee of the Journal of Biological Chemistry between 1939 and 1955, and a member of the Council of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology. In 1955 he was elected to the National Academy of Sciences.