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Bill Williams
A J S 'Bill' Williams MBE CChem FRSC

RAF pilot and university lecturer, Bill is renowned for his schools lecture series given to over 80,000 children.

This profile was published in April 2014. Bill sadly passed away in May 2016. You can read an obituary for Bill here

From nine years of age, Bill Williams was fortunate to have piano lessons from Colin Ross, the assistant organist at Hereford cathedral. The piano has since been very much a part of his life. Now 93, he continues to regularly play the classical chamber music repertoire alongside very skilled string players, some of them professional.

Williams was educated at St. James’s Primary School and then at Hereford High School, where the late J I Stephens was an inspiring chemistry teacher. Chemistry practicals were so interesting and were supplemented by optional practicals on Saturday mornings. Stephens also played the viola and with a fellow teacher (cello), and a pupil (violin), played chamber music with Williams.

RAF service

Bill WilliamsOn leaving school in 1939, he passed the examinations for entry into the Civil Service. After volunteering to train as a pilot in 1940, he was selected to become a flying instructor. He demonstrated great skill flying the beam. The beam was a radio navigational device enabling the pilot to navigate to base without guidance from the ground, and to descend safely through cloud. Between 1942 and 1946 he gave 2,000 hours of instruction on the beam alone to all ranks of pilots.

In addition during 1945–46 he taught mathematics weekly to RAF personnel preparing for return to civilian life and also attended evening classes weekly in chemistry, physics, mathematics and biology at Swindon Technical College, in preparation for university entrance at Aberystwyth University.

In July 1950, he graduated with first class honours in chemistry. Also in July, the department at Aberystwyth announced a vacancy for an assistant lecturer in organic chemistry. At the suggestion of his tutor, Bill applied and was appointed.

"After nearly six years in the RAF, university was the greatest intellectual excitement."

This was however, a year of contrasts – financial hardship, a tragic bereavement, and his own struggle with polio alongside his academic successes.

Beginnings at Aberystwyth

In 1950, the Edward Davies Chemical Laboratories (EDCL) at Aberystwyth – which had been opened in 1907 – urgently needed maintenance and modernisation; the water pressure, fume extraction, and a pre-war electrical system were most inadequate. With near-capacity undergraduate classes, only three academic staff (J B Bowen, S H Graham and Bill Williams), no demonstrators, inadequate support staff and a lack of finance, teaching organic chemistry proved very difficult. Laboratory teaching occupied two weeks out of three. Research progressed slowly – eventually there were papers published on rearrangement reactions in small carbon rings and also in lithium aluminium hydride reduction of oximes and related compounds.

There was, therefore, a need for an academic to be involved in planning and overseeing the required extensive modernisation for mid-twentieth century chemistry. Gradually, Williams assumed the role, which increased with the detailed planning of the major extension, opened in 1962. By 1968, the floor area had almost tripled, every room in the Old Building had been upgraded and the long-awaited honours organic laboratory had been built. This was a very large administrative contribution, augmented by the advent of health and safety legislation, to the modernisation of the EDCL. Between 1950 and 1965, 12 graduates in chemistry at Aberystwyth obtained chairs in chemistry, in British or overseas universities.

As an undergraduate, Bill acquired practical skills during vacation employment in Bulmer’s Cider Laboratory, and much more so in the preparation of the much admired A Student’s Handbook of Organic Qualitative Analysis, co-authored with Bowen and Graham (U.L.P. 1957).

Schools' lectures

From 1969 onwards this practical skill was on public display when the Faculty of Science launched a Schools’ Lecture Service and Bill and Professor H G Heller devised a spectacular demonstration lecture on colours and dyes, entitled ‘Experiments and considerations touching colours’ (after Robert Boyle's lecture given in 1666). Over nearly 20 years it was given about 200 times throughout mainland Britain and in Brussels; over 100 times with Heller, the remainder with J C. Young, with J B Bowen and with P J Darcy, all organic chemists at EDCL. It was given at venues such as the Royal Institution, the Open University Summer School and very many university departments.


Bill Williams Cartoon

In 1990, in response to a Royal Society of Chemistry initiative to encourage interest in science among 10–12 year olds, Bill devised the demonstration lecture ‘Science and Energy’, which demonstrates that energy occurs in different forms which are interconvertible, with the pupils performing all the experiments. Eventually, Dr J A Ballantine, reader in chemistry at Swansea University, joined the team and together they gave the lecture all over the country on some 800 occasions to some 80,000 pupils. In 2005, due to Ballantine’s failing health, Dr D N Jones, lately reader in chemistry at the University of Sheffield, joined the team, and finally, in 2011, Bill had to retire. Since then, Drs J S Davies and J Loveridge continue to lecture to enthusiastic audiences. Powerpoint has greatly improved the presentation.

During a presentation at Welshpool High School, the technician (also a professional cartoonist), and unbeknown to Bill, sketched the enclosed cartoon. A DVD of the lecture was recorded in Swansea in 2010 with Ballantine and Jones is a more authentic account!


Bill Williams at the piano

In recognition of his services to science, to young people and to the Royal Society of Chemistry, Bill has received the following awards: MBE, the Michael Faraday Award Lecture, the B D Shaw Bronze Medal (University of Nottingham), RSC Silver Medal and other awards.

In 1998, at Smith Kline Beecham in Harlow, Bill gave 12 lectures in five days to 1,000 pupils from Harlow primary schools, and to staff and their children, which allowed a large donation to be made to the Ophthalmology Department at the West Wales Hospital, Carmarthen.

Bill pays tribute to his late wife Margaret, his two supportive children, his friend and colleague the late Dr Jim Ballantine, and all of his colleagues and friends who have contributed so much to his long and remarkable life. 

Words by A J S Williams
Images courtesy of A.J.S. Williams/ © Jenny Lovell / Royal Society of Chemistry
Published April 2014.

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