Roger J. Williams

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Roger John Williams (August 14, 1893 – February 20, 1988), was an American biochemist who spent his academic career at the University of Texas at Austin. He is known for isolating and naming folic acid and for his roles in discovering pantothenic acid, vitamin B6, lipoic acid, and avidin.[1] He served as the founding director of the Clayton Foundation Biochemical Institute from 1941 to 1963, was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1946, and served as the president of the American Chemical Society in 1957.[2] In his later career he spent time writing for a popular audience on the importance of nutrition.

Williams is credited for emphasizing the "Biochemical Individuality" of each person with respect to their metabolic makeup and micronutrient needs. It is also the title of one of his well known books that emphasizes the uniqueness of nutritional requirements from person to person based on their genetic makeup, lifestyle, medical history, diet, etc.

Early life and education[edit]

Roger John Williams was born in Ootacamund, India of American parents on August 14, 1893. His family returned to the US when he was two years old, and he grew up in Kansas and California. He attributed his early interest in chemistry to the influence of his brother Robert R. Williams, eight years his senior, who was also a chemist.[1][3] Robert is remembered for being the first to synthesize thiamine (vitamin B1).[1] He was an undergraduate at the University of Redlands and received his bachelor's degree in 1914. He also received a teaching certificate from the University of California, Berkeley the following year and began work as a science teacher in California. After a year of teaching, he decided to return to school and began graduate work at the University of Chicago, from which he received his Ph.D. in 1919.[1][4] While there he met Julius Stieglitz, who he later described as a major influence inspiring his interest in organic chemistry. After graduating he briefly worked as a chemist for the Flesichmann Company before returning to academia.[1]

Academic career[edit]

Williams began his academic research career by joining the faculty at the University of Oregon in 1920.[1][4] During the following twelve years he spent there, he discovered pantothenic acid. In 1932 he moved to Oregon State College and in 1939 he moved again to the University of Texas at Austin. He founded and became the founding director of the Biochemical Institute (later the Clayton Foundation Biochemical Institute) in 1940 with funding from Benjamin Clayton.[1]

Williams' research program was notable in that he used yeast as model organisms to study nutritional requirements, on the hypothesis that the underlying cellular biochemistry was generalizable from yeast to animals. He aimed to study vitamins, at the time known as animal nutrients whose chemical properties were not characterized. This approach was successful in leading to the discovery of pantothenic acid, published in 1933, which prompted renewed interest among biochemists in microbial metabolism. Williams and his colleagues in Texas – including Robert Eakin, Esmond Snell, William Shive, and Lester Reed – continued this work and used the technique to discover a number of other vitamins and nutrients. Williams and Snell, along with student Herschel K. Mitchell, isolated and named folic acid by extracting it from four tons of processed spinach. He also worked on discovering and isolating vitamin B6, lipoic acid, and avidin.[1]

Throughout his career Williams was a prolific writer, producing not only hundreds of scientific papers but also a number of widely used textbooks. In his later career, Williams became interested in writing for a popular audience and published a number of books about nutrition, emphasizing genetic differences between individuals in nutrient metabolism and the possibility of treating health problems with diet.[1]

Williams retired from his role at the director of the Biochemical Institute in 1963 and from the University of Texas in 1986.[2]

Awards and honors[edit]

Personal life[edit]

Williams married his high school sweetheart Hazel Elizabeth Wood in 1916 during his stint teaching in California. The couple had three children. After Hazel died in 1952, he married Mabel Phyllis Hobson; the two enjoyed extensive travel. Williams also enjoyed fishing and golf and played the violin and piano.[1]

For most of his life Williams suffered from eyestrain caused by aniseikonia, a condition that was not recognized during his youth; he had glasses specially made to treat the condition in the 40s.[1][3]

Williams died on February 20, 1988. His wife Phyllis survived him and died in 2004.[1]


  • The Human Frontier (Harcourt Brace, 1946)
  • The Biochemistry of B vitamins, Roger J. Williams and others (Reinhold Pub. Corp., 1950)
  • Nutrition and Alcoholism, Roger J. Williams (Univ. of Oklahoma Press, 1951)
  • Free and Unequal: The Biological Basis of Individual Liberty. (Univ. of Texas Press, 1953)
  • Biochemical Individuality: The Basis for the Genetotrophic Concept (John Wiley & Sons, 1956; University of Texas Press, 1969 to 1979; Keats Publishing, 1998, ISBN 0-87983-893-0) (also translated into Russian, Italian and Polish)
  • Alcoholism: The Nutritional Approach (Univ. of Texas Press, 1959 to 1978)
  • Nutrition in a Nutshell (1962, Doubleday and Dolphin)
  • The encyclopedia of biochemistry, edited by Roger J. Williams and Edwin M. Lansford, Jr. (Reinhold Pub. Corp., 1967)
  • You are Extraordinary (Random House, 1967)
  • Nutrition Against Disease: Environmental Prevention (Pitman 1971, Bantam Books, 1973)
  • Physicians' Handbook of Nutritional Science (C.C. Thomas, 1975)
  • The Wonderful World Within You: Your Inner Nutritional Environment (Bantam Books, 1977; Bio-Communications Press 1987–1998)
  • The Prevention of Alcoholism Through Nutrition (Bantam Books, 1981)
  • Rethinking Education: The Coming Age of Enlightenment (Philosophical Library, 1986).


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m Davis, Donald R.; Hackert, Marvin L.; Reed, Lester J. (2008). "Roger J. Williams: 1893–1988" (PDF). National Academy of Sciences Biographical Memoirs. Retrieved January 14, 2017.
  2. ^ a b c d Davis, Donald R. (May 13, 2003). "Roger J. Williams". Retrieved January 14, 2017.
  3. ^ a b Williams, Roger J. (April 1954). "Autobiography". Retrieved January 14, 2017.
  4. ^ a b "Bios". Time Magazine. April 27, 1931. Retrieved April 17, 2009.

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