Sir Alwyn Williams

Passionate geologist and modernising Principal of Glasgow University
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The Independent Online

Alwyn Williams, geologist and university administrator: born Aberdare, Glamorgan 8 June 1921; Lecturer in Geology, Glasgow University 1950-54, Principal and Vice-Chancellor 1976-88, Honorary Research Fellow in Geology 1988-2004; Professor of Geology, Queen's University, Belfast 1954-74, Pro-Vice-Chancellor 1967-74; FRS 1967; President, Palaeontological Association 1968-70; Lapworth Professor of Geology, Birmingham University 1974-76; Chairman of Trustees, British Museum (Natural History) 1974-79; Chairman, Committee on National Museums and Galleries in Scotland 1979-81; Vice-Chairman, Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals 1979-81; Kt 1983; President, Royal Society of Edinburgh 1985-88; Chairman, Committee on Scottish Agricultural Colleges 1989; Chairman, Scottish Hospitals Endowment Research Trust 1989-96; married 1949 Joan Bevan (one son, one daughter); died Glasgow 4 April 2004.

Alwyn Williams's first job was as Lecturer in Geology at Glasgow University in 1950. When he returned to Glasgow 26 years later as Principal, he was faced with the need to modernise the university and develop computing and technology. He set out a tough and decisive programme of rationalisation, emphasising the need for good teaching and research.

He pointed out firmly to the members of one laid-back department, nervously assembled under his three-line whip at 8.30 one morning, that he had published more research papers in the preceding year than the lot of them put together.

Slim and slight of build, Alwyn Williams would have been easy to overlook - until he spoke. His charismatic Welsh voice generated elegant prose and persuasive argument; it exuded power and authority. His piercing green-blue eyes mostly danced with mischief and charm but if the occasion warranted they would rapidly change into a disconcerting steely gaze. He was nobody's fool.

Williams was born in Aberdare, South Wales, in 1921. He was an outstanding pupil at Aberdare Boys' Grammar School and a talented rugby player, until an attack of tuberculosis in 1939 kept him in a sanatorium for over a year. Thwarted in his initial intention to join the Fleet Air Arm, he gained an open scholarship to the University of Wales (Aberystwyth) and a first class degree in Geology in 1943. For his PhD he mapped Welsh Ordovician rocks and described new species of fossils - especially brachiopods. These small "lamp-shells" were to fascinate him for the rest of his life.

A Harkness Fellowship to the US National Museum in Washington in 1948-50 led him to join a fellow workaholic, the legendary palaeontologist G. Arthur Cooper. Four years as a lecturer at Glasgow were followed by rapid advancement to the Chair of Geology at Queen's University, Belfast, in 1954 at the tender age of 33.

He remained at Queen's for 20 years, the last seven as Pro-Vice-Chancellor. During that time he carried out major research on the geology and palaeontology of the Southern Uplands of Scotland. He told me that his life during the troubled times in Northern Ireland made his subsequent job as Principal of Glasgow University seem relatively peaceful.

Williams was appointed Lapworth Professor of Geology at Birmingham in 1974. Two years later he was offered the principalship at Glasgow University and came back to what he later came to consider his Alma Mater. He was in post for 22 years - a superb academic leader who really ran the university, although he encountered stiff opposition when he suggested selling some of the university's collection of Whistler paintings in order to help finances.

His outstanding flair as a chairman led to his appointment variously as President of the Palaeontological Association, Chairman of the Natural History Museum, President of the Royal Society of Edinburgh and membership of numerous NERC and UGC committees.

He served as Chairman of the Committee on the National Museums and Galleries of Scotland from 1979 to 1981. The resulting Williams Committee Report recommended that a new museum should be built based on the collections of the National Museum of Antiquities. The stunning new Museum of Scotland was opened in Chambers Street, Edinburgh, in 1999.

Less enjoyable was his non-executive directorship, 1984-90, of the Scottish Daily Record & Sunday Mail Ltd owned by Robert Maxwell.

Fellowship of the Royal Society, the Royal Society of Edinburgh, membership of the Royal Irish Academy and honorary degrees from Belfast, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Paisley, Oxford and Strathclyde acclaimed his success as both scientist and administrator. Williams was knighted in 1983, and retired as Principal in 1988. At one of the university parties given in his honour, he and his wife responded to shouts of "Geez us a song" by singing "I Belong to Glasgow".

Now freed from other responsibilities for the first time since his student days he was able to devote himself full-time to research - his passion and his recreation. He had worked a 16-hour day as Principal, pursuing research early in the morning before beginning his normal day's work. After he retired he was awarded grants to create a Palaeobiology Unit within the university so that he could work on the molecular shell structure of his beloved lamp-shells. Coupled with that was his overall editorship of the mammoth American Treatise on Invertebrate Paleontology, part H: Brachiopoda (first published in 1965, with a revised edition in progress).

Increasingly severe macular degeneration forced him to use large computer monitors and giant hand lenses. He taught himself to touch-type and recounted with great glee one message from his friendly Apple Mac typing tutorial - "Well done Alwyn".

Since 1999 he had been the author or co-author of 23 publications on brachiopods. When he learned that he had lung cancer he told his secretary to write to all his contributors to cut their deadline date. Just before he died he said to the consultant, "I need another four years to complete my research." The gentle response came, "I can't guarantee that."

Alwyn Williams married his Welsh fiancée Joan Bevan in Toronto in 1949. In every sense it was a wonderful partnership. Both were excellent hosts, loved good conversation and added greatly to social cohesion in the university and the city of Glasgow at large.

G. Y. Craig