Bob Williams’ interest in bioinorganic chemistry started in 1943. ‘It’s a long time ago!’ he quips. As for many people, his interest in the subject was spawned at school. On a forestry camp holiday from his local Grammar School he noticed that after the trees were felled chemicals were added to the soil – but not just the normal nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium mixture that you would expect in a fertilizer, but borate as well. Bob realised that the plant biologists had noticed what no chemist had: that plants require a large number of elements for growth. His ambition – which in the end turned into his life’s quest – was to establish why some elements were used in biology and some others were not. His intention on arrival as an undergraduate at Oxford University was to answer this question. ‘But Oxford University did not allow chemistry students to do biology!’ he laughs. It was the first of a number of barriers that he has had to overcome before chemistry as a discipline really embraced biological problems.
What does he remember of his Oxford undergraduate days? ‘It was a very tough course,’ he says, ‘and there was no syllabus at all!’ I wonder what QAA would make of that? ‘The tutors made no effort at all to train you for the exam,’ he says, ‘they trained you to understand chemistry, and included as much mathematics as possible in doing so. Because of this, we had no idea what was going to be asked in the exams – you could be asked anything at all at the examiner’s whim’.
During his Part II studies at Oxford with Harry Irving, he discovered that dithizone bound different metal ions with different affinities – and established the now universally accepted Irving-Williams series (remember that this was before he had even obtained a B.A.). This is just one of several new areas that Bob has created, but he is modest about this achievement: ‘Some people get lucky in their lives, and I got lucky’, he says. It became clear much later on that the Irving-Williams series was relevant in biology too.
After a postdoctoral spell in Uppsala, Sweden, developing ‘gradient elution analysis (ideally for proteins) – another area that everyone now uses routinely – he returned to Oxford in 1951 as a junior research fellow. During these early years, he spent many hours looking around for ways to tackle larger biological molecules, an area of science that was not viewed as likely to be particularly productive for him. ‘When I told Sir Hans Krebs that I was going to work on metal ions in biology he told me that it was a complete waste of time and that all the metal ions were merely impurities’. But although the role of metals in biology had not been widely accepted at this time, he was fortunate, he says, to have been given great freedom to pursue his ideas in the Inorganic Chemistry Laboratory at Oxford. ‘The ICL was a dumping ground for misfits’, he declares, ‘so I fitted in very neatly!’.
His career through the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s led him from heme chemistry and vitamin B12, to NMR of paramagnetic proteins, protein structure determination by NMR and through to minerals in biology. Early model chemistry about redox energies and electron transfer led him to propose in 1961 that energised proton gradients drive ATP formation in cells. During this time, he was one a only a handful of people that realised that protein structures were more mobile than the protein crystallographers believed, and he carried out many fundamental experiments to establish whether it was possible to do protein structures in solution. One well-tested idea is that the fold energy of a protein around a metal ion can create a special constrained state – an ‘entatic state’ – of enhanced functional value. Just recently, Bob has been writing on the use of heavy metal isotopes in kinetics of metal ion uptake. In 1990, approaching retirement, he embarked upon a series of now famous textbooks with J J R Fraústo da Silva. The first of these – The Biological Chemistry of the Elements – is now in its second edition and summarises Bob’s view on metals in biological systems. In his lastest book, entitled The Chemistry of Evolution, Bob puts forward new ideas that argue that there is an underlying chemical basis to evolution. Interesting? Of course. Controversial? Certainly. But we all know that Bob’s never been afraid to put controversial new ideas forward and see where they end up.
For those younger people who have not witnessed Bob’s contributions first hand, it really is no exaggeration to say that he spawned a whole new discipline in UK chemistry. He’s seen so many former students and postdocs move to distinguished academic positions of their own (several of them FRS themselves), that it would be too difficult to try to mention them all. ‘I would forget someone important and they would get very annoyed with me’ he chuckles. So what is the secret of his success? ‘I’ve been very lucky’, he tells me, ‘but you do need more than luck. You need to be able to recognise when something falls in your lap – so you need to be looking for the ‘fallout’ as much as for anything else’.
But what impresses you most about Bob is the sheer wealth of knowledge that he has across such a wide spectrum of science. Even at the age of 80, he’s as fresh as a daisy – a veritable font of ideas. He can talk about chemistry, biology, evolution, cell biology, biochemistry and physics and convince you that they are all connected. He’s what the research councils like to call ‘multidisciplinary’: but of course he was wearing a multidisciplinary hat long before hats like that came into fashion. In fact, it took him a long time to persuade the department at Oxford that he could teach a biology course for chemists. ‘They told me there was no room in the timetable!’, he says, ‘ so I went to a friend of mine in the Zoology Department and taught it out of hours there!’ Now, of course, every chemistry department in the country has some element of bioinorganic represented within their degree courses.
His work has been recognised publicly by many different awards over the years: included in his medal collection are three from The Royal Society of Chemistry, three from the Biochemical Society and four from International Science Societies. What has he enjoyed most about his academic career? Two things, he thinks. First, the sheer satisfaction of achieving something meaningful and seeing other people recognise that. ‘You enjoy your work more when that happens because it adds colour to your work,’ he says. Second, the students he has taught. ‘They’ve been a fantastic bunch,’ he says, ‘just to give them half a lead and watch them find something that you could not have found yourself is hugely rewarding. It’s like children in a family producing something that the father could not’.
But this ability of Bob’s to set people off into uncharted territory has been one of his great strengths, of course. His commentary on the subject is so incisive that he is able, quite literally, to create whole new projects from a conversation in the corridor. The Inorganic Biochemistry community owe Bob a huge debt. He’s been an inspirational, influential and hugely successful ambassador for our subject for longer than most of us remember. We wish him all the very best on his 80th birthday.
RJP Williams was talking to Emma Raven