Wilson was born on 12 August 1911 in Winchester to Archibald Edward Wilson, German teacher at Winchester College, and Ethel Wilson, daughter of banker and financier Felix Schuster. He was educated at Winchester College and Balliol College, Oxford where he studied Classics.
After his studies in Oxford he applied for the Diplomatic Service but due to a back ailment was not successful. He then spent a year teaching in Westminster School and then joined the British Museum as assistant keeper in 1937.
He then specialised in Communist affairs and held the following positions:
- Charge d'affaires in Peking 1957–59
- Ambassador to Yugoslavia 1964–1968 
- Ambassador to the USSR 1968–1971 
He retired from the diplomatic service in 1971 and was appointed Master of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. While at Corpus he was also Chairman of the Appeal Committee of Cambridge University and was instrumental in the procurement of a new building to house the Faculty of Music. He retired from the Mastership in 1980 and was succeeded by Michael McCrum.
He died on 20 September 1983 aged 71.
Wilson wrote several books including:
- Life and Times of Vuk Stefanović Karadžić (1970)
- Tito's Yugoslavia (1979)
- Leonard Woolf: A political biography, ed. Powell, (1978), ISBN 0-312-48001-6
Wilson's younger sister was the philosopher Mary Warnock. Wilson married Elizabeth Fleming in 1937 and had three children, Elizabeth, Catherine (born 1940) and David (1941–1975). His daughter Elizabeth married Romanian pianist Radu Lupu. He was a good friend of the composer Benjamin Britten and the cellist Mstislav Rostropovich.
- WILSON, Sir (Archibald) Duncan, Who Was Who, A & C Black, 1920–2008; online edn, Oxford University Press, Dec 2012
- Sir Duncan Wilson (obituary), The Times, London, 22 September 1983
Sir Michael Creswell
| Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary at Belgrade
Sir Terence Garvey
Sir Geoffrey Harrison
| Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary at Moscow
Sir John Killick
Sir Frank Lee
| Master of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge