Lives of the fellows

Robert Evan Owen (Sir) Williams

b.30 June 1916 d.24 May 2003
BSc Lond(1937) MB BS(1940) MRCS LRCP(1940) MD(1945) MRCP(1960) FRCPath(1963) FRCP(1966) Hon MD Uppsala(1972) FFPHM(1976) Hon FRCPA(1977) Hon DSc Bath(1977) Dr hon causa Lisbon(1992)

Robert Williams was a pioneer in the study of hospital infection and a distinguished former director of the Public Health Laboratory Service (PHLS). Although medical bacteriology lost much when, in later years, he transferred his energies to teaching and administration, the discipline gained from the research groups he established and encouraged, and from his administrative skills and innovations.

He was born in London, the son of Gwynne Williams, a gruff but much-loved surgeon at University College Hospital, and Cicely Mary nee Innes, a ward sister there. A younger brother, David, became a surgeon. After boarding school at Sherborne, Robert greatly enjoyed University College London, staying on after the pre-clinical course to gain a BSc with first class honours in physiology. After clinical studies at University College Hospital,he qualified MB BS in 1940 with distinctions in pathology, medicine, hygiene and forensic medicine. He was then a house physician at UCH, before returning to laboratory work as a pathologist in the Emergency Medical Service.

From 1942 until 1946 he worked in the Medical Research Council's wound infection research unit at Birmingham under the overall direction of A A Miles [Munk's Roll, Vol.VIII, p.337]. Here he laid the foundations for his important work on the sources and prevention of wound and other infections, both in hospitals and outside. Wounds included those from air raids, but were mostly industrial injuries. After the war, Robert developed these themes in the streptococcus staphylococcus and air hygiene laboratory of the Public Health Laboratory Service, Colindale, becoming director of the former in 1949.

To prevent infections one needs to know the sources of the microbes involved and the paths by which they spread. This requires detailed microbial identification to allow discrimination between different strains of the same species. Robert and his colleagues built on earlier work by Griffiths and G S Wilson [Munk's Roll, Vol.VIII, p.544] to improve type-identification particularly of staphylococci. Staphylococcal phage-typing has since become an important routine tool. All this and more was summarised in a seminal book on hospital infection (Hospital infection: causes and prevention, London, Lloyd-Luke [Medical Books], 1960).

In 1960, Robert became professor of bacteriology at St Mary's Hospital Medical School and director of the Wright-Fleming Institute. The latter had just been radically reformed by Albert Neuberger [Munk's Roll, Vol.X, p.362] and contained new, excellent, departments of immunology and haematology, but the bacteriology department, which included mycology and for a short time virology, had been without a professor for three years and showed it. With Robert Williams' arrival, things changed rapidly. He encouraged those of us who had survived the bleak years to develop our special interests and continued his own studies with both old and new colleagues, although the bulk of his work on bacterial spread had been done at Colindale. At St Mary's he studied the spread of staphylococci carried on the skin scales, which all people shed in varying amounts.

Of the new projects started, the most important was a major study of the relations between the bowel flora and colon cancer. Another was on laboratory methods. Compared with highly automated clinical chemistry, bacteriology was, at the time, technically primitive. The image of a bacteriologist, waving his platinum loop over a Petri dish with coloured spots on, dies hard. New techniques were encouraged and a research engineer taken on. Things were moving at last.

From 1967 to 1973 Robert was dean of St Mary’s medical school. He was also on the Medical Research Council and was an examiner for the Royal College of Pathologists, of which he was a founder fellow and later president. Surprisingly, enough time was left for bacteriology. Three things remained sacrosanct - lectures, tutorials to students, and the weekly departmental discussion meeting. However busy Robert was, his door was always open to his staff and he was always ready with advice, encouragement, and questions.

Robert was the first dean of St Mary's to be a full-time academic, not a part-time consultant. This caused much unnecessary heart burning in some quarters. He was successful because people soon realised that he was acting in the interests of all, not just of some factions. As a chairman of committees he was unsurpassed. He got his way by listening, questioning and reasoning, all laced with humour. The dean, together with the professors of medicine (Stan Peart) and chemical pathology (Albert Neuberger) transformed St Mary's Medical School. The triumvirate was known to the irreverent as 'Stanley Deanberger'.

Then in 1973, Robert Williams went back to Colindale as director of the Public Health Laboratory Service. It was more administration, but of microbiology and public health, his own fields. Once when asked how he found the change he replied, "...it's just another set of problems". He liked solving problems. The next few years were to be the final flowering of the PHLS. In particular, Department of Health approval and funds were obtained to build a new Public Health Laboratory on a greenfield site, adjacent to its old collection of ancient buildings and ramshackle huts. Apparently Robert Williams and Gordon Smith, the chairman of the PHLS board, collared the then Minister of Health on his own and extracted a promise to fund a new building, which was a great success. However, political storms were gathering and last year the PHLS, for long the envy of other countries, was doomed. What Robert thought of this we shall never know, as by then he was suffering his final long drawn out illness.

Robert Williams was a liberal-minded doctor and a scientist. His own research was highly practical and he spawned many valuable projects by others. He had no time for dogma, but wanted proof. For him, epidemiology had to be quantative. It was not enough to know that a particular pathway of infection existed, you needed to know how much traffic it carried. At St Mary's he improved student selection and included students on the academic board. He opened up the Royal College of Pathologists to non-medical scientists and supported the latter in the PHLS. He was never pompous, always approachable, with a quizzical sense of humour.

Alan Glynn

(Volume XI, page 625)

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