Thursday, February 23, 2017

Roger John Williams

Roger John Williams


Roger John Williams (1893-1988) was an American biochemist who spent his academic career at the University of Texas at Austin. He is known for concentrating and naming folic acid and for his roles in discovering pantothenic acid, vitamin B6, lipoic acid, and avidin. Other work in chemistry involved folinic acid, synthesis of vitamin B12, and pioneering work on inositol.

Roger Williams became well known for his popular works on nutrition. He was deeply concerned that many children, even in developed countries, receive poor nutrition and "are unaware that good nutrition could make a vast difference in their lives." (Dr. Roger J. Williams, The Wonderful World Within You, p. 51)

Williams was a prolific writer. He produced hundreds of scientific papers and a number of textbooks. He was especially interested in the genetic and metabolic uniqueness of the individual, and the possibility of treating health problems and alcoholism with diet. This is all the more remarkable when taking in account Roger's chronic eye problems. For most of his life he suffered from eyestrain caused by aniseikonia, a condition that was unknown until about 1930. In 1941 he began to wear special glasses to treat the condition. He was then 50 years old.

Williams was a well-rounded individual who enjoyed golf and trout-fishing. He spoke fondly of wading in clear mountain streams in Oregon, even if there were no fish to catch. He was an accomplished musician who played the violin and the piano.

Roger was born in India where his American parents served as pioneer missionaries. His parents were Robert Runnels Williams (1839 - 1916) and Alice Evelyn Mills Williams (1857 - 1921). When Roger was two years old, his family returned to the United States and Roger grew up on an 800-acre ranch in Greenwood County, Kansas (near Eureka), and later lived in Redlands, California.



The Rev and Mrs. Williams with their children in Redlands, California in 1915
From left to right: Robert, Henry, Paul, Alice [Linsley] and Roger


His father designed and supervised the building of the Baptist church and seminary in Ramapatnam, Tamil Nadu (Ramayapatnam, Andhra Pradesh) in India. It was built by his seminary students, most of whom had never seen a two-story building or an architectural plan. The photograph below was evidently pressed at some time against a book or document that partially imprinted itself onto the photo. The seminary building (shown below) is still in use today and is visible in Google Earth at coordinates 15.03827N, 80.03919E.

He attributed his early interest in chemistry to the influence of his brother Robert R. Williams, eight years his senior, also a distinguished chemist. Robert is known for the discovery and synthesis of thiamine (vitamin B1).

Roger received his bachelor's degree from the University of Redlands in 1914. He earned a teaching certificate from the University of California, Berkeley and worked as a science teacher for a year in Hollister, California. He taught chemistry, physics and general science. Roger later referred to this as “the hardest work I ever did.”

After a year of teaching, Roger began graduate work at the University of Chicago. He received his Ph.D. in 1919. While at the University of Chicago, Roger met Julius Stieglitz. Stieglitz further inspired Roger's interest in organic chemistry.

Williams taught at the University of Oregon from 1920 to 1932. There he began serious research as a chemist and discovered pantothenic acid. He taught at Oregon State College from 1932 to 1939. In 1939 he moved to the University of Texas at Austin. In 1940 he founded and became the founding director of the Biochemical Institute. With funding from Benjamin Clayton, the Institute later became known as the Clayton Foundation Biochemical Institute. Williams was the director of the Clayton Foundation from 1941 to 1963. 

In 1946, Roger Williams was elected to the National Academy of Sciences. He also served as the president of the American Chemical Society in 1957.

Roger married Hazel Elizabeth Wood on August 1, 1916. The couple had three children: Roger J Williams, Janet Wilcox, and Arnold Williams. Hazel died in 1952.

Roger remarried Mabel Phyllis Hobson and became the stepfather to her son, John W. Hobson. Roger Williams died on February 20, 1988. Mabel died in 2004.




Roger John Williams is buried in Austin Memorial Park Cemetery in Travis County, Texas. Besides his professional accomplishments, Williams left a legacy through his family, his friendships, his students, his writings, and his Christian faith.

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