Professor Dudley Williams ScD, FRS 1937 - 2010#

Jeremy K.M. Sanders

Obituary published by University of Cambridge

Dudley Williams, Emeritus Professor of Biological Chemistry, who made many pioneering contributions to biological chemistry including an understanding of the antibiotics that can fight MRSA “superbugs”, has died at the age of 73.

Born in Leeds to a family of relatively modest means and background, he was educated at the Grammar School Pudsey and at Leeds University.

After a PhD in Leeds working on Vitamin D chemistry, Williams moved to Stanford, California to work with Carl Djerassi (the "father of the contraceptive pill", and more recently playwright, novelist and benefactor of Gender Studies in Cambridge).

In three stunningly productive years, Williams showed how mass spectrometry and NMR spectroscopy could transform the way that organic chemists worked.

His textbooks, reviews, research papers and lectures revolutionised the practice of organic chemistry over the following 10 years. He once said that all the work in his 1961 PhD thesis could have been completed in just 6 weeks a few years later.

In 1964 he was appointed by Alexander (later Lord) Todd to a junior academic position in the Chemistry Department at Cambridge where he remained until his retirement in 2004.

He made it a condition of his appointment that the Department installed top-quality Nuclear Magnetic Resonance and mass spectrometers to bring it into line with its American competitors. For many years he continued developing new techniques to make NMR and mass spectrometry into ever more powerful tools for determining chemical structures and for probing chemical properties.

He was one of the most cited chemists in the UK, and was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1983.

Williams was always keen that his expertise be used for practical benefit through his academic work and industrial consulting. In 1970 he determined the structure of the vitamin D metabolite -formed through reactions in the liver and kidney - that is the human hormone responsible for calcium absorption into the body, and necessary for the formation of healthy bones; this work led to life-saving therapies for patients with kidney failure.

A year earlier, he was excited about a new problem: a powerful natural antibiotic of unknown structure. He told his research group that using mass spectrometry we would be able to solve this structure in just six months. The antibiotic was called vancomycin - at the time it was obscure, and thought to be too toxic for clinical use. Those six months turned into almost four decades of science: difficult and frustrating for several years - with some very thin PhD theses- but ultimately successful.

NMR, mass spectrometry, thermodynamics, synthesis and molecular biology were all brought to bear by the group on the problem of understanding not only the structures of these molecules, but also the intermolecular interactions leading to molecular recognition and their antibiotic activity.

His contribution was enormous: vancomycin and its analogues have become key weapons in the fight against MRSA "superbugs", with sales in 2007 of ca. $1 billion, and have saved tens of thousands of lives.

Throughout those decades, he also used vancomycin and related species as vehicles for fundamental thinking about molecular shape and flexibility, and about the thermodynamics of solvation, binding and cooperativity.

Throughout his career, Williams was never afraid to challenge conventional wisdom and to think the unthinkable. Some of his potential achievements were thwarted by others: he submitted to SERC many years ago a proposal on what we would now call combinatorial chemistry, but it was years ahead of its time and was not funded.

He was a compulsive scholar: no conversation, whether in a research meeting, the pub or in a dull committee, would be complete without him making a philosophical diversion into entropy, or why nature makes alkaloids, or perhaps the evolutionary origins of the behaviour of colleagues.

This reduced his value on a practical committee - conveniently optimising the time he had for research - but made him always stimulating company. He was emphatically not interested in administration or management.

As with most chemists, his results were actually obtained by his "academic family": the PhD students and postdocs in his research group. He saw the two-way relationship between supervisor and research group as one of the great pleasures of academic life.

Professor Jeremy Sanders, a former PhD student of Dudley Williams, and now Head of the School of Physical Sciences, said "Dudley gave us scientific freedom, while also ensuring that everything we did was worth doing. He encouraged us to think laterally and imaginatively, to challenge orthodox thinking and to have the courage to work in new areas. He insisted that having provocative and testable ideas that might turn out to be wrong was more important than pursuing boring details. He was hugely proud of the successful careers of members of his research group: his legacy lives on, not only in his science, but through his students and postdocs, and their own academic families."
Imprint Privacy policy « This page (revision-1) was last changed on Thursday, 2. December 2010, 15:20 by Kaiser Dana
  • operated by