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Scientists of Wales; Richard Tecwyn Williams, F.R.S

(December 01, 2012)

Scientists of Wales 

Richard Tecwyn Williams, F.R.S (1909 - 1979)

Richard Tecwyn Williams

There are different types of science, many more by now than the familiar ones of school education, namely: biology; chemistry; and physics. These traditional descriptors have been broken down into a bewildering array of titles. An easy way to appreciate the extent of this change is to read the prospectus of any university and to find, for example: agricultural science; materials science; polymer science; cosmology; nuclear physics; genetics; botany; inorganic chemistry; nanotechnology; computer science; and, of course, the plethora of types of engineering – each one with its specific, narrow degree course.  This variety reflects the expansion of higher education, with its host of research interests of individual professors; it also reflects the expansion of technologies in industry.

It can be argued that all of these new sciences are merely applications of the essential principles enshrined in the original three. Indeed, a valid criticism of modern science education, in school courses and beyond, is that courses are now so specifically defined by and confined to, particular applications that emerging successful students, even graduates, have a weak grasp of basic and interconnecting principles, even though they may possess detailed knowledge of features of their specialism. Despite acquiring a high order of qualification, many emerge as narrow minded. They know their type of tree but have little appreciation of the wood, let alone the environment.

Back in the 19th century, science progressed in great strides because of the efforts of talented individuals, mostly working alone or with a small team of supporters.  A distinguished example is Michael Faraday, the ‘father’ of electromagnetism and, for all of us, of domestic electricity. At the time there were few universities or science establishments or science-based industries. Much was achieved by personal patronage and individual initiative. These gifted pioneers indulged their own interests, but exemplified and established the highest standards of theoretical and practical science.

It was not long into the 20th century before radical change came about, partly because of the experience of World War 1. For instance, the refinement of military equipment and the need to bring some measure of relief to the injured; notably the pioneering work in plastic surgery to attempt to alleviate previously unimaginable facial disfigurement.  Another factor for change was the realization that ‘pure’ science very soon became ‘applied’ science through the development of technologies, which were invariably seen as broadly beneficial to society at large, not to mention the financial gains for investors.

From about 1930, the days of ‘blue skies’ science research were numbered i.e. research for its own intrinsic worth as a means for humans to exercise their intellectual capacities, without regard for or without constraint from public opinion. The name of the game now was ‘Find a sponsor’. Without a sponsor, nowadays the government or an industry, virtually no science research was possible. Science evidently became very expensive and mostly conducted by groups of researchers working in teams. Ask any modern researcher about the constant anxiety of securing grants to enable the continuation of a line of research, with its associated burden of completing application forms, business plans, risk assessments and so on.  He who pays the piper calls the tune.  But who composes the tune and according to what criteria?

Richard Tecwyn Williams was born and brought up in Abertillery. He was the first of five children of Richard and May Ellen, both from the area of Blaenau Ffestiniog. Because of low wages in slate quarrying Richard moved to the coalmines of Abertillery South Wales. When Tecwyn was 18 months old the young family returned to North Wales because his mother found it difficult to settle in the more Anglicized south.  However, after three years, again for economic reasons, the family returned to Abertillery. Tecwyn was educated at Gelli County Primary School, at Abertillery County Grammar School and at University College (as it was then) Cardiff.  He obtained his B.Sc. degree in 1928, specializing in chemistry and physiology.  He completed research work for a Ph.D in 1932, mainly about the structure of glucuronic acid (a sugar acid).  His career in university education then took him to Birmingham, Liverpool and finally London, where in 1948 he was appointed to the first Chair of Biochemistry at St Mary’s Hospital Medical School. 

For the distinction of his work he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1967. His application citation read: "The researches of Williams have been largely responsible for laying the foundations of biochemical toxicology. He has worked on the metabolism of aliphatic alcohols, alicyclic hydrocarbons, benzenes and alkylbenzenes, sulphonamides, drugs of a wide variety, heterocycles, and organotin compounds. Especially noteworthy are his work on fluorescence and his studies on thalidomide in which he has shown that none of the twelve breakdown products which he identified is teratogenic. Williams has also defined the structural factors required for a compound to be excreted through the bile. He has discovered species differences which may have an application in primate classification. His work is of immediate relevance to our understanding of drug metabolism and action and that of the biological effects of food additives, pesticides, and other compounds foreign to the body".

Tecwyn’s specialism was in foreign compound metabolism (fcm) in the broad field of toxicity. The study of fcm is now a well established discipline with important ramifications into pharmacology and toxicology. The origins of the discipline lie in the work of German organic chemists in the early part of the 19th century. They were fascinated by observations that organic substances such as benzoic acid, when introduced into the animal body, underwent chemical reactions similar to those they witnessed occurring in the test tube.

It was necessary to establish a chemical basis to understand the toxic effects of these substances. One approach was to study the ‘detoxification’ of the substances in the animal body. The idea of the importance of metabolic studies to understand toxic mechanisms is not, therefore, a new one.

From 1930 to 1950, the study of fcm remained quiescent.  It was regarded as something of an academic backwater without particular practical application.  It was during this time that Tecwyn Williams began his systematic approach to the study of drug metabolism.  He worked largely alone in the U.K. in what was seen as an unfashionable field.

Thalidomide structuresThe two enantiomers of thalidomide, which caused catastrophic teratogenic effects on foetal development


The subject was catapulted to prominence in the early 1960s by the thalidomide catastrophe. Many babies with severe birth defects were born in the late 50s and early 60s.  These abnormalities were attributed to the effects of a widely used mild hypnotic drug, thalidomide. The thalidomide episode was to focus in a dramatic way the need to improve the safety evaluation of new drugs and chemicals for use in humans.  Central to this evaluation was the need to understand the metabolic disposition of a drug and its toxicological implications.  In this way, the careful and patient studies of Tecwyn Williams, forged over many years, suddenly found an immediate application in the newly emerging disciplines of toxicology and clinical pharmacology.

Tecwyn Williams is a very significant figure in the history of fcm. It was his fortune to have assembled a framework of concepts and knowledge of the subject at a point in time when the ‘idea had come’ (cometh the hour, cometh the man). This piper, now lauded, found sponsors ready to pay, but he continued to play his own tune.

The following tribute appeared in the official biographical memoir of the Royal Society.


"Tecwyn Williams was a true scholar eschewing what appeared to him as trendiness, the dramatic or spectacular. He had a thinly disguised contempt for those he thought to be operators or entrepreneurs in scientific research. His great strengths were simplicity of mind (i.e. an uncluttered mind able to reduce complex issues to practical simple terms) and a sense of standards. He was able to sense what was simple and would lend itself to direct experimentation. He was a man of few words. There was an economy and thoughtfulness in his style of speech and it repaid those around him to listen with care to each carefully weighted word.

He was a kind and considerate man. He was a fortunate man in the sense that he was sufficiently gifted to conceive ideas that in the fullness of time would fashion a new field of knowledge.  It is given to few to be an architect of new science; such was the fate of Tecwyn Williams."

Neville Evans, 1 December 2012

If you enjoyed this, you'll also enjoy these by Dr Neville Evans, in his series Scientists of Wales:

     ERH Jones; December 2016
Elwyn Hughes
; September 2016
Gareth Roberts
; June 2016
Ezer Griffiths; March 2016

Handel Davies; December 2015
Mathematicians of Wales; September 2015

Professor Eleri Pryce; June 2015

William Robert Grove; March 2015

Frank Llewellyn-Jones; December 2014

Professor Julie Williams; September 2014

Ieuan Maddock, F.R.S.; June 2014

John Houghton, F.R.S.; March 2014

David Brunt, F.R.S.; December 2013

Professor John Beynon; September 2013

John Meurig Thomas; June 2013
Robert Recorde and William Jones; March 2013
Richard Tecwyn Williams, F.R.S; December 2012

Lyn Evans; September 2012
E G Bowen; June 2012


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