Sir Robert Williams

Former director of the Public Health Laboratory Service
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Robert Evan Owen Williams, bacteriologist and epidemiogist: born London 30 June 1916; Assistant Pathologist, Emergency Medical Service 1941-42; Pathologist, Medical Research Council Unit, Birmingham Accident Hospital 1942-46; staff, Public Health Laboratory Service 1946-49, Director, Streptococcus, Staphylococcus and Air Hygiene Laboratory 1949-60, Director 1973-81; Professor of Bacteriology, St Mary's Hospital Medical School, London University 1960-73, Dean 1967-73; President, Royal College of Pathologists 1975-78; Kt 1976; Chairman, Advisory Committee on Genetic Manipulation, Health and Safety Executive 1984-86; married 1944 Margaret Lumsden (died 1990; one son, two daughters); died Dorchester 24 May 2003.

Robert Williams was a distinguished figure in public health and a pioneer in the early work on hospital infection. Although medical bacteriology lost much when, in later years, he transferred his energies to teaching and administration, becoming Dean of St Mary's Medical School in London and then Director of the Public Health Laboratory Service, the discipline gained much from the research groups he set up or encouraged, and from his administrative skills and innovations.

He was born Robert Evan Owen Williams in 1916, to Gwynne Williams, a gruff but much-loved surgeon (and for a time Dean) at University College Hospital in London and Cicely née Innes, a ward sister there. After boarding school at Sherborne he greatly enjoyed University College London, where he stayed on after the normal pre-clinical course to gain a BSc in physiology. After clinical studies at University College Hospital he qualified in 1940 and, following a post as house physician, he returned to laboratory work as a pathologist in the Emergency Medical Service.

From 1942 till 1946 he was in charge of the Medical Research Council's Wound Infection Unit in Birmingham under the overall direction of Professor A.A. (later Sir Ashley) Miles. Here he laid the foundations for his important work on the sources and prevention of wound infections and of hospital cross-infection.

After the Second World War until 1960 he developed these themes at the Central Public Health Laboratory at Colindale as Director of the Streptococcus Staphylococcus and Air Hygiene Laboratory. It was then he developed the system of typing staphylococci (still a major problem in hospital infection) by their susceptibility to types of bacteriophage - viruses which attack specific bacteria.

In 1960 he 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 Professor Albert Neuberger 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 continued his own studies with some old and new colleagues and encouraged those of us who had survived the bleak years to develop our special interests. New projects were started of which perhaps the most important was a major study of the relations between the bowel flora and colon cancer. Compared with highly automated clinical chemistry, bacteriology, at the time, was technically primitive. The image of a bacteriologist, waving his platinum loop over a Petri dish with coloured spots on, dies hard. Now techniques were encouraged and a research engineer taken on. Things were moving at last.

From 1967 to 1973, R.E.O., as he was often known in the hospital, became Dean of the medical school, which took up half his time. He was also on the Medical Research Council and examining for the Royal College of Pathologists (of which he was a founder fellow and later President). The department of bacteriology had what time was left. Three things remained sacrosanct, lectures and tutorials to students, and the weekly departmental discussion meeting. Most importantly, no matter how busy he was, his door was always open to his staff and he was ready with advice, encouragement and, of course, penetrating questions.

Williams 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 of just some factions. As a chairman of committees he was unsurpassed. He got his way by listening to others and by quiet reason laced with humour. It would perhaps be exaggerating to suggest that he regarded the deanship as an exercise in applied epidemiology, but epidemiologists study population behaviour: add a bacteriologist's attention to minutiae and you have further reasons for his success as dean, and as an administrator in general. Williams, together with the professors of medicine (Stan Peart) and chemical pathology (Albert Neuberger) - the triumvirate - transformed St Mary's Medical School.

Then in 1973 Williams went back to Colindale as Director of the whole of the Public Health Laboratory Service. As he said, it was more administration - but of microbiology and public health, his own fields. 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 Central Public Health Laboratory on a greenfield site adjacent to its old collection of ancient buildings and ramshackle huts. Apparently, Williams and Gordon Smith, the chairman of the PHLS board, had collared the Minister of Health and extracted a promise of £16m. Excluded senior civil servants were not amused, but the new building was, and remains, a great success.

However, the political storms were gathering and the PHLS, for long the envy of other countries, was doomed. In April this year the main part of the service was absorbed into the newly created Health Protection Agency. What Williams thought of this we shall never know, as by then he was suffering his final, long-drawn-out illness.

Robert Williams was, in the best sense, a liberal-minded doctor and scientist. His own research was of great importance in the application of bacteriology to medicine, and he spawned many valuable projects by others. At St Mary's he improved the student-selection base and included students on the academic board. He opened up the College of Pathologists to non- medical scientists and gave much support to the latter in the Public Health Laboratory Service. I worked with him at St Mary's for 13 years and later for a year in the PHLS: I have never had a wiser or more sympathetic chief.

Alan Glynn