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Professor Sir Alwyn Williams FRS (1921 - 2004):
Geologist; university professor and administrator

Prof. Sir Alwyn Williams

Alwyn Williams was both an outstanding university administrator, innovative and inspirational, and a geologist of the highest international repute, being particularly distinguished in the study of brachiopods (invertebrate marine animals with two dissimilar shells; they are also known as ‘lamp shells') and the palaeontology of the Ordovician period. A large part of his considerable academic output was produced during his tenure as Professor of Geology at Queen's University, Belfast, which chair he occupied from 1954 to 1974. Besides his academic accomplishments, as an administrator he built up the Department of Geology at Queen's into one of the more distinguished in the country, and served also in some of the highest administrative positions in the University: Dean of the Faculty of Science, Secretary to Academic Council, and Pro-Vice-Chancellor.

Williams was the eldest child of a tramway inspector and born in Abercwmboi, Aberdâr (Aberdare), Glamorgan, Wales. He won a scholarship to Aberdâr Grammar School followed by a scholarship to the University College of Wales, Aberystwyth, where he was Student Union president, as well as being elected vice-president of the National Union of Students, graduating, with first class honours in geology in 1943. Although in his youth he had been a keen athlete and rugby player, a tubercular illness prevented him from serving during the war - he had applied to join the Fleet Air Arm - so he read for a PhD, making a study of Ordovician rocks in Carmarthenshire, Wales. In 1948 he attended the first postwar International Geological Conference, and travelled to the United States where from 1948 to 1950 he was at the Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC, having been awarded a Harkness Fund Fellowship. This enabled him to work with the world's leading brachiopod expert, G Arthur Cooper, compiler of the largest brachiopod collection in the world. In 1950 he was appointed lecturer in Geology at Glasgow University, where, as would be the case throughout his career, he held teaching to be equally important as research; he would later be remembered amongst other things for introducing literally hands-on examination of fossils, students up to that time having been confined to merely looking at them in glass cases.

In 1954 he was appointed Professor of Geology at Queen's University, Belfast, only the second appointment to this chair which had been occupied since 1921 by John Kaye Chambers. This was a time when the University was expanding rapidly under the far-sighted and highly efficient Vice-Chancellor, Eric Ashby. This expansion was not merely in Staff and student numbers, but also saw an extensive building programme which transformed the University area architecturally. One such building was the new Geology Department in Elmwood Avenue, opposite the main building, which was opened on April 30, 1954, just before Williams' took up his appointment.. Williams firstly brought his own energy and vigour to a small department which under his leadership over the following twenty years would grow into one of the leading departments of geology in the United Kingdom; not only was he a highly capable administrator, his academic work, which he stated he regarded as a form of recreation, made his one of the most distinguished names in the world in his disciplines. He produced a large corpus of innovative work on, especially, brachiopods, his main interest. In fact, he saw the study of brachiopods as rather more than that, once describing how his wife was willing to tolerate his "daily halleluiahs to the Brachiopoda".

Williams' comprehensive study and knowledge of these fossils covered their taxonomy (that is, classification in an ordered system that indicates natural relationships), their phylogeny (that is, connections between groups of organisms as understood by ancestor/descendant relationships), their growth and cell structure, palaeobiogeography (that is, their global distribution) and stratigraphy (that is, where they are to be found in relation to rock strata). Methodologically, he pioneered new techniques of study and description of brachiopods, notably scanning electron microscopy (SEM).

Through his study of brachiopods, Williams became interested and expert in Ordivician period palaeontology generally, this being the period, roughly between 490 and 443 million years ago, when most of the northern hemisphere was oceanic and brachiopods, amongst other invertebrates, flourished. His list of publications, whether authorial or editorial, was considerable. While at Queen's, he began work, as overall editor (along with AJ Rowell) co-ordinating the work of 18 authors including himself, on the production of Part H of the American Institute of Paleontology's Treatise on Invertebrate Paleontology, published in two volumes in 1965. Much later, in the 1980s, he was asked to take in hand a fully revised version, this time in four volumes and containing the work of over 40 authors, again including Williams. Publication began in 1995, four volumes were complete at Williams' death and the whole series of six volumes was completed in 2007.

Other publications included numerous contributions to learned journals, whether in his own disciplines or for science more generally, including the Transactions of the Royal Societies in London and Edinburgh (of both of which he was a Fellow); the Journal of the Geological Society; Geological Magazine; Palaeontology; the (American) Journal of Paleontology, amongst others.

As an example of his constructive approach to matters to do with students, in 1970, the officers of the Representative Council of the Students' Union were arguing for greater student representation in the administration and management of the University, including proportionally equal representation on the Senate and Academic Council, and other bodies and committees. In a memorandum they submitted to Academic Council, they rather cleverly quoted the words of Eric Ashby, the former Vice-Chancellor, arguing for a move towards a model for modern universities which would be "a society of Chancellor, Masters and Scholars" as co-equals. In response to this, Williams stated that he would not oppose widening student access "to satisfy the student ego or avert demonstrations", although more positively he did allow that it could be useful to allow student input into assessing teaching methods.

Although not a large man in terms of stature or physique, Williams had a powerful if not formidable personality, albeit with considerable charm. His wife Joan Williams was a singularly energetic person, charismatic, popular and very widely respected. He had excellent relations with students, and he and his wife, Joan - a native Welsh speaker whom he met when an undergraduate at Aberystwyth and married in Toronto, and who worked in the University Library in Belfast - frequently entertained students and others at their south Belfast home.

In 1974 Williams left Queen's to take up the Lapworth chair of geology at Birmingham University, named for the great geologist Charles Lapworth (1842-1920), though he remained there only two years, being appointed Principal of Glasgow University. He remained in that post for 22 years, during a very difficult period for tertiary education in the United Kingdom, primarily because of large-scale restructuring of financing which in effect meant widespread cuts in government funding. Williams had to take some unpopular decisions, but was among the first of the United Kingdom's university chiefs to begin seeking alternative sources of funding, one of his ideas being to seek more overseas students. Nevertheless, he was able to bring innovation to the University, opening a new department of computing and an interdisciplinary palaeobiology unit. One small cut he was able to make was his official driver, as his wife insisted on driving their university car herself. Williams served as Vice-President of the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals from 1979 to 1981.

He had numerous activities outside the University at this time, including membership of the Natural Environment Research Council, the University Grants Committee, and chaired the trustees of the Natural History Museum and the committee on the National Museums and Galleries of Scotland; his eponymous report recommending a new Museum of Scotland, a merger of the National Museum of Antiquities and the Royal Scottish Museum, was adopted and this new institution opened in Edinburgh in 1999.

He received numerous awards and recognitions: amongst others, he was a Fellow of the Royal Society (1967), and also of the Royal Society of Edinburgh (of which he was Vice-President from 1985 to 1988), the Royal Irish Academy and the Geological Society. He was a Foreign Member of the Polish Academy of Sciences. He was awarded the Lapworth Medal of the Paleontological Association; the Clough Medal of the Edinburgh Geological Society, the Murchison Medal of the Geological Society, and the T Neville George Medal of the Glasgow Geological Society. He was awarded an honorary DSc from Queen's University in 1975; further honorary degrees were conferred by the Universities of Wales and Edinburgh (DSc); Strathclyde and Glasgow (LLD ); and Oxford (DCL).

Born: 8 June 1921
Died: 4 April 2004
Richard Froggatt

Wesley McCann


Oxford Dictionary of National Biography; obituaries: The Guardian; The Independent; award citation, Lapworth Medal of the Palaeological Association (Journal of the Palaeological Association January 2001); LA Clarkson, A University in Troubled Times; A McCreary & BM Walker: Degrees of Excellence; private information