Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Williams, William Thomas (Bill) (1913–1995)

by Ian D. Rae

This article was published online in 2019

William Thomas Williams (1913–1995), biologist, was born on 18 April 1913 at Fulham, London, only child of William Thomas Williams, ironmonger’s assistant and former coalminer, and his second wife Clara, née Wood, midwife and charlady. Assisted by scholarships, Willy (later known as Bill) attended the Stationers’ Company’s School in North London. He proceeded to the Imperial College of Science and Technology, University of London (BSc Hons, 1933; DIC, 1940; PhD, 1940; DSc, 1956), where he worked on plant physiology and was president (1935) of the musical and dramatic society. In 1933 he became an associate of the Royal College of Science. He supported his studies by teaching botany at the Imperial (1933–36) and Sir John Cass Technical (1936–40) colleges.

Soon after World War II broke out in 1939, Williams was called up for duty in the British Army’s Anti-Aircraft and Home Defence Command. The military, recognising his talents, commissioned him on 25 October 1941 in the Royal Army Ordnance Corps and then transferred him to the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers when that corps formed twelve months later. He served in the Air Defence (later Radar) Research and Development Establishment of the Ministry of Supply, rising to war substantive captain and temporary major (1944). By late 1946 he was released from his wartime duties.

Returning to teaching, Williams took a position at Bedford College for Women (1946–51). In 1951 he was appointed professor and head of the department of botany at the University of Southampton, where he provided strong leadership in research and teaching. While there, his interest in leaves and their stomata—the pores through which gases are exchanged with the atmosphere—gave way to broader interests in statistical ecology and the pattern analysis of plant species data. He was a member (1956–65) of the Annals of Botany Company and editor (1960–65) of the Journal of Experimental Botany. Continuing his interest in performance, he organised a student-staff revue for which he taught his colleagues to act and to dance, and himself won medals in ballroom dancing competitions. He was also engaged by the British Broadcasting Corporation in television and radio programs, including the Brains Trust.

In 1965 Williams accepted an invitation from Godfrey Lance, a former colleague and chief of the division of computing research at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization, to travel to Australia for a few months. He visited a number of divisions, meeting scientists and lecturing about his research. Soon after he returned to England, he enquired about a permanent appointment with CSIRO; Lance readily acceded. Williams joined his Canberra-based division in 1966 as a senior principal research scientist. In a signal that he was here to stay, he became an Australian citizen in January 1968.

Seeking warmer climes, Williams soon transferred to the division of tropical pastures, based in Brisbane, and remained there until his formal retirement in 1973. He then moved to Townsville, continuing his scientific work as a consultant to the division’s Davies laboratory and the Australian Institute of Marine Science, and as an informal adviser to staff and students at James Cook University of North Queensland. Regarded as a pioneer in the use of computers to classify biological data, he was in demand as a collaborator, publishing more than 180 journal articles, many as co-author. In Queensland he resumed his interest in radio, recording items for the Australian Broadcasting Commission science unit. Not necessarily adhering to his discipline, he also explored social norms such as the culture of the working man’s public bar and the companionship of a dog. Some of the talks were reproduced in his book The Four Prisons of Man, and Other Insights (1971).

In Australia Williams studied the piano, taking lessons from Larry Sitsky in Canberra and Alan Lane in Brisbane. He gained Australian Music Examinations Board credentials, including the licentiate in music (1972), and taught pupils in Townsville. There, he was also a founding member of the Community Music Centre and chaired the local Music Teachers’ Association. In 1980 he organised the first North Queensland Piano Competition, which grew into the North Queensland Concerto and Vocal Competition. His popularity as an accompanist was ascribed to his playing the mezzo piano rather than the forte piano, although he owned one of each.

Williams was a heavy roll-your-own smoker and devotee of pub culture. Amiable and eccentric, he was reluctant to wear shoes or to observe dress codes that required ties and jackets, and often dressed ‘like a derelict beachcomber’ (Williams 1995, 18). He never married. His mother joined him in Australia and, until her death (1976), the two lived in subdivided houses that allowed each a measure of independence. He was awarded an honorary doctorate of science by the University of Queensland (1973); elected to fellowship of the Australian Academy of Science (1978); appointed OBE (1980); and presented with a Townsville Arts, Culture, and Entertainment award (1991).

During the 1990s Williams’s health failed. While surgery prolonged his life, he wryly observed that he found himself ‘conducting a biological experiment’ that he had not designed, but was in ‘a privileged position’ to ‘monitor and interpret the results’ (1992). He died on 15 October 1995 at Townsville, after suffering serious injuries in a fall, and was cremated.

Research edited by Nicole McLennan

Select Bibliography

  • Clifford, H. Trevor. ‘William Thomas Williams 1913–1995.’ Historical Records of Australian Science 12, no. 1 (June 1998): 99–118
  • CSIROpedia. ‘William Thomas (Bill) Williams [1913–1995].’ Accessed November 2018. https://csiropedia.csiro.au/Williams-William-Thomas. Copy held on ADB file
  • Walker, Rosanne. ‘Biographical Entry: Williams, William Thomas (1913–1995).’ Encyclopedia of Australian Science. Last modified 2 March 2018. Accessed November 2018. http://www.eoas.info/biogs/P002762b.htm. Copy held on ADB file
  • Williams, Robyn. ‘The Bare-Footed Botanist.’ Australian, 1 November 1995, 18
  • Williams, W. T. ‘A Biologist Grows Old.’ Ockham’s Razor, no. 405, 2 August 1992. Transcript. Papers of H. T. Clifford, MS 188, box 1, file 2. Basser Library, Australian Academy of Science
  • Williams, W. T., ed. Pattern Analysis in Agricultural Science. Melbourne: CSIRO, 1976

Additional Resources

Citation details

Ian D. Rae, 'Williams, William Thomas (Bill) (1913–1995)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/williams-william-thomas-bill-28592/text36123, published online 2019, accessed online 24 August 2019.

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