Roger J. Williams (1893–1988)

Typescript dated April 1954 (age 61)



Editors’ note: This text was obtained by computerized character recognition from the original typescript and then corrected by Donald R. Davis and Millie (Mrs. Arnold) Williams. Although occasional addition of commas, hyphens and other editing would improve readability, we chose to preserve the original form of the typescript, except in rare instances.


In setting forth some of the events in my early life I want to introduce a word of caution with respect to their interpretation. There is a widespread tacit belief that people’s lives are molded almost entirely by their home environments and their early experiences and that their inclinations and tastes in later years are traceable to their earlier experience. This belief must remain tacit because if it is expressed it must be defended and for it there is, in my opinion, no defense. I have no doubt that biologically, inheritance gives each of us not only his facial and other features, (even such minutiae as finger prints) his basic body build, his distinctive endocrine system, and his distinctive mental abilities and traits. It is with these as basic raw material that environment does its molding.

Because of my convictions on this subject, I would be fully as inclined to think that my scientific bent was derived from my maternal grandfather, who demonstrated this characteristic in a striking way, than from any event in my early life which may have created a scientific interest. If I have, as has sometimes been said a "missionary spirit," I would attribute this as much to the inherited characteristics derived from my mother and father as to the fact that I was brought up in a missionary atmosphere. The view is based, I believe, upon sound biology, and it is no surprise to me that I cannot find in my early experiences anything like an adequate basis for my present tastes, inclinations, aptitudes and weaknesses.

I was born in India of missionary parents, but was brought to this country at two years of age, so that my earliest recollection (I think) is of an incident on shipboard in the Pacific when I was allowed to beat the dinner gong. I do not think this early experience has anything to do with the fact that even yet meal time has pleasant connotations.

We lived for a few months in Oakland, California, and for a few months more in Kansas City before my father negotiated by trade and purchase for an 800 acre ranch in Greenwood County, Kansas, 12 miles from Eureka. This in our family vernacular was known as the ranch from henceforth. It was here at four years of age that I first went to a one-room country school which was, I believe, about two miles distant from our home. Because my Barnes first reader, which I still possess, had pictures which gave a clue to the verbal contents (often in verse form), I gave the illusion of knowing how to read by memorizing a considerable part of it. I never became an avid or voluminous reader, though I became very enthusiastic about some stories, fictional and otherwise, that I read. The fact that I have never been a book lover in the true sense, I attribute largely to difficulties of eyesight (severe aniseikonia accompanied by astigmatism, in my adult years). Though aniseikonia was unknown to science until about 1930, it was doubtless with me from an early date, but was impossible to recognize because like other victims I have always had very keen vision, but suffered from strain whenever I read for more than a short time. I know of no better description of how it feels to read with this difficulty than to say it is like walking uphill dragging a log. This eyesight difficulty has been with me consistently and has greatly influenced my activities in many ways. It was corrected with moderate success by special glasses in 1941.

I was the youngest in a family of six children, of which all are now living except the one boy next to me in age, who died in infancy. The youngest of my three brothers is five years older than I am and my eldest brother Robert R. (also a member of the National Academy) is 8 years older. My sister Alice was the first born. I quite naturally came in for plenty or teasing and I know that at times I appeared to be thin skinned and sensitive—I can remember having my feelings badly hurt—but as the saying goes "it all came out in the wash" and I doubt if I suffered any more permanent damage from these teasings than I did from stubbed toes. I went barefoot at every opportunity and suffered many toe and foot casualties because or unseen obstacles including broken glass and cactus (in California).

We had lived on "the ranch" only three years when my father took a small pastorate at Otay, California, about five miles from the Mexican border. Here I went barefoot the year round, spent a good deal of time watching birds (including humming birds) build their nests, climbed fig trees by the hour garnering sustenance as I went, played marbles for keeps (on the sly) and baseball when opportunity offered. Bob and I sometimes teamed up against the two middle sized brothers Paul and Henry and as I remember this made a reasonably close contest. Bob was the pitcher on our side and could make it difficult for his younger brothers to hit. All four of the Williams brothers were athletically inclined and exhibited at one time or another more than average though not phenomenal skill. My own prowess in baseball was no doubt hampered by my eyesight. I had a good pitching arm during my college years and might have excelled in this as did my brother Henry, but for the fact that I couldn’t catch (for sure) even pop up flies nor could I bat well. This was a source of considerable embarrassment and real disappointment. With my aniseikonia now corrected (at least in part), I have found that on picnics I can catch flies and bat better than I could when I was a youngster.

While in California my mother and sister and I took a memorable trip to the Pan American Exposition in Buffalo, New York, and were present with relatives there for a couple of weeks during the summer when McKinley was shot. It was on this trip that I had my first encounter with a regular bath tub. The wonders of the Exposition and the long train trip going and coming stand out in my memory.

My father must have had a discouraging time during the years when I was in elementary school. He was the head of a Seminary which he built in India and was used to carrying forward substantial projects. He had become severely crippled in India by a fall which injured his hip, and since he was 55 years old when I was born, I never knew him in his prime. He gave up his pastorate at Otay after three years and we moved to Eureka, Kansas to be near "the ranch." There we lived for two years when we moved to Ottawa, Kansas, where my sister and Bob were now in school in Ottawa University. It was in Eureka that I showed a reasonable degree of prowess in school work. Spurred on by my father’s ambitions for his children, my rating in my class of 25 or so rose from about the midpoint until on one report card my rank was number one. A little girl whom I secretly admired and I, for a time, alternated in this first position. I liked arithmetic, I enjoyed analyzing and diagramming sentences, was reasonably good at spelling, but was not strong in subjects such as geography which involved mostly memory work. This weakness of not being able to remember meaningless names and other material which is not related to reasoning has been with me throughout life. Foreign vocabularies learned from books by rote memory are very difficult for me. Languages learned by conversation are easier because I have a reasonable "auditory memory" and can remember how things sound. I have great difficulty in remembering telephone numbers long enough to call them unless I say them over to myself in which case, in a sense, I remember them with my mouth and tongue.

Probably this is a good place to discuss and evaluate my work as a student. I was never, partly for reasons mentioned above anything like a "straight A" student in high school or college even when the scholastic standards were only moderate. In some kinds of subjects, history, economics, foreign languages, I was often happy to get even a B or B–. I am now an honorary member of Phi Beta Kappa, but I never would have arrived at membership by the usual route. There were doubtless other factors which kept me from being the kind of student who can always be pointed to with pride. Probably my eyesight drag, of which I was only partially conscious (never having experienced anything else), was in part responsible. I remember in college being envious of one of my fellow students and close friends who from one standpoint had very poor eyes (he was nearsighted and could hardly recognize a friend across the street) but who could sit down with his books and read all night long if necessary. I could count the buttons on one’s vest a half block away, but was doing well if I read for an hour at a stretch. Another fact (partly related, of course) which kept me from being an A student was my lack of diligence. I tended to do the things I was interested in, scholastic standards were not too high, and in general I only studied when I felt like it. In college mathematics, which I liked very much, I made good grades because the professor was only concerned with our ability to do problems—he didn’t require that we do them ahead of time or hand in assignments.

One of the facts to be derived from discussing my scholastic accomplishments is that I was not the kind of person who would ever have been discovered in a "talent search" of the usual type, in which everyone who has mediocre grades in any subject is immediately removed from further consideration.

It has been my experience throughout my decades of teaching that the students who are likely to accomplish the most in later life are not necessarily the students who are the best lesson getters. Some of those who were most meticulous and letter perfect in all their school work turned out to be failures, relatively speaking, when they were out on their own. Others who grasped some subjects with difficulty have in later years become highly proficient and distinguished. Some who during their school years were inclined to trifle have later come up with highly important work.

My interest in the field of chemistry was no doubt stimulated by the fact that my older brother Bob, whom I have always admired, was a chemist by the time I had to make a decision concerning my vocation. It has been commented upon that both of us have made contributions in the same field—vitamins. We do have many inclinations that are similar and it is not surprising that human welfare looms large on the horizon of each of us. We are, however, very different in our mental make-up. He is interested in philosophical questions which have never attracted me. Because of his wide reading and comprehension, he is very well informed on world affairs and has a storehouse of knowledge and information which makes my meager store look puny indeed. His work has been characterized by a singleness of purpose which is foreign to my make-up. Having synthesized thiamin, he has devoted himself unstintingly to the application of his outstanding discovery to human betterment around the world.

During my undergraduate years I did not have my eyes centered on chemistry as my future work with any degree of certainty. I considered in turn the ministry and medicine and at the same time had an interest in literature and in writing. The first time I ever had any encouragement with respect to my writing ability was when I was a sophomore in high school. I do not remember the subject of my "theme" but I do remember that I got a grade of B+ on it and that the teacher spoke to me about it in a highly commendatory way. When I was a junior in college I was elected editor of the college publication which came out monthly. I had up to this time written a few articles and "poems" and in my senior year I won a $20 essay prize which was open to all students. Although I had the "writing bug," I had the practical sense to know that writing would probably not afford me a decent livelihood.

While living in Ottawa, Kansas, I worked as a "nursery rat" and during my last year there I learned to bud deciduous fruit trees. We had to bud 2000 young trees per day averaging 200 per hour for 10 hours to earn $1.00, and I could, if pressed, bud as many as 400 in an hour. But we could not earn extra by budding more than our quota nor could we bud 2000 trees and call it a day’s work and go home. When we moved to California I took up the same line of work and budded mainly orange trees, first for wages and later on a contract basis. This was an important source of my spending money while in college. I became pretty well acquainted with the nursery business and during the first summer after I had obtained a high school teacher’s certificate at Berkeley, but had no teaching job, I was offered a job as the foreman of a small nursery. At the last minute, however, by some near miracle a teaching job did turn up—a couple of weeks after the high school had started in Hollister, California. When I showed up for the job, because of my diffidence and low spoken manner there was serious doubt as to whether I could possibly perform, but the superintendent and principal allowed me to proceed on a temporary basis, and I was fortunately able to exceed their expectations so that I was a "keeper" and the second year I was given a salary raise. The discipline situation in the High School was in a bad state for various reasons and although I made a moderate success, this was the hardest work I ever did. I used to come home in the evenings thoroughly exhausted. I taught three subjects—Chemistry, Physics and General Science—besides acting as a guardian and referee in several study halls.

At California during my graduate year I had learned a good deal, particularly in physical chemistry under Richard C. Tolman, but the work in organic chemistry was a disappointment and I felt that I lacked considerable as far as being a trained chemist was concerned. While at the University of California I waited on tables at the Phi Gamma Delta house for my board, kept my landlady’s house clean for my room and during the second semester taught elementary subjects to foreigners at night for my "practice teaching." My "education" courses at Berkeley were not a total loss. Perhaps the most important thing I learned was the advisability of being on good terms with the janitor. I remember one young instructor in the History of Education who used to wax eloquent—on one occasion he told us that during the Renaissance period "continents were daily being discovered" and on another occasion that the scholasticists "were men of encyclopedic vision."

After my first year of teaching a college classmate and I were married. She was always a good sport during our 35 years together and a source of great encouragement and love. We decided to make a break after my next year of teaching and continue my graduate work. This we did on a shoestring. Undoubtedly the fact that my three brothers graduated from the University of Chicago influenced me to choose this institution for graduate work. My father had been a friend and ardent admirer of William Rainey Harper and my three brothers received free scholarships due to this friendship. When my father heard that Dr. Harper was to be operated on, he wrote urging against it. Father had a low regard for operations and was particularly concerned about the dangers of general anesthesia. Dr. Harper was operated on and lost his life, but this loss was probably inevitable.

At the University of Chicago the most dominant man with whom I came in contact was Julius Stieglitz. He greatly influenced my thinking in the field of organic chemistry—not that I accepted all of his ideas, but at least he had ideas and lifted organic chemistry out of the hopeless state (for me) of being merely something to memorize. Out of the thinking which he stimulated came 9 years later my textbook on organic chemistry which was early adopted by Dartmouth, Princeton and Yale, and ultimately by nearly three hundred other universities and colleges.

After I had finished my first year at Chicago, I was offered a fellowship in Biochemistry by F. C. Koch whom I came to regard very highly. He gave me the reins pretty much on my thesis work and my thesis entitled The Vitamin Requirement of Yeast was published before I got the degree and attracted more than an average amount of attention. I shall always be very glad that I was attracted at this time to the rich field of biochemical investigation, though actually my attention to the field of organic chemistry occupied my principal efforts for a period of years after I entered academic work, and it was my text book in this field that gave me my first touch of professional success.

Perhaps it may be worthwhile to discus briefly something about my ambitions and drives as they are related to my accomplishments. I have had and do have ambition but I regard myself as very fortunate indeed that there has been no compelling drive that forces me to want for more than I have any reasonable expectation or hope of attaining. Every time honors have come to me they have come as pleasant surprises beyond what I have expected. My present status in my profession is far beyond what I ever dreamed of when I started out. If anyone had told me ten years before that I would some day receive an honorary degree from Columbia University and be elected a member of the National Academy of Sciences I would have scoffed at the predictions. I have, fortunately I believe, always been able to regard myself as a country boy who should not expect plaudits for the working and thinking that "come naturally." Perhaps my early life with three older brothers helped to give me through life the feeling that I am still growing up and that someday I may "amount to something." I say that I am fortunate because I believe that there are many who are cursed by too much ambition for their abilities, and others who have abilities which fail to materialize because of lack of ambition and push.

One of the sources of satisfaction in my life is the fact that I have had my eye on making contributions to knowledge and insight and have given relatively little thought and worry to the problem of my own financial status. One of my early colleagues, now deceased, always had his eye on a "million dollars" that he was going to make by developing some important invention. His life must have turned out to be a disappointment because he made no striking scientific contributions, neither did any of his ideas or inventions bring in money. My objective at the time of my contacts with him was to find out what it takes to make yeast grow. I had no glimmering that the finding would have anything other than scientific interest. Actually, however, the discovery of pantothenic acid proved to be a major scientific contribution and since the patents on it were given to Research Corporation and its sale amounts to many hundreds of thousands of dollars per year, a substantial sum is ploughed back into scientific research each year and there is enough left over so that my colleagues in the investigation and I receive a very substantial bounty. I’m not at all sure it always works out this way, but it does seem to me fortunate when investigators can concentrate on their scientific work and forget about "the million dollars" their contributions are going to yield.

I have always gained keen enjoyment from various kinds of games. During my years in Oregon I took up golf and have become and continue to be an enthusiastic though not a highly accomplished golfer. Golf suits my temperament very well and when I get into a close game I can forget practically everything, what day of the week it is, whether it is A.M. or P.M. and perhaps even my name. The first time I broke 80 on a regulation golf course was in 1940 on Friday the 13th of September. On this day the Clayton Foundation first started its magnificent support of our work in Texas. I shot a 76.

In Oregon I also learned to fish for trout in running streams with dry flies. This is a grand sport though it became too strenuous for me after about fifty. I have often thought that wading in clear mountain streams was great fun and would be even if there were no fish to catch.

Music has always been an important item in my life. My experience with it jibes perfectly with Seashore’s studies which show that there are many factors which enter in musical ability. I have some of these and lack (relatively) others. I discovered when I was about 20 that I had "absolute pitch." Many times I have loosened the strings on a violin completely and then tuned it just as accurately without a piano or pitch pipe as I could with it. This involves, as it appears to me, remembering what different pitches sound like. My competence in the field of harmony is very meager indeed, and complex musical compositions do not have much appeal. My tastes are relatively "plebian" and I love tuneful music. I can play (after a fashion) by ear on the piano or any other instrument on which I can figure out the scale.

An interesting side light with respect to my scientific work has been a flair for coining words. Among the words originating with me which are in the dictionary or probably will be shortly are: nutrilite, pantothenic, avidin, folic, isotelic, genetotrophic, lipoic. Four of these are names for new substances, of which three were discovered by my colleagues with minor collaboration on my part, and three are words expressing concepts which I know no other way of expressing. The word nutrilite came to me in a dream. My brother and I were discussing (in my dream) the need for a word comparable to vitamin which would apply in plant as well as animal physiology. In my dream I proposed the word nutrilite. He agreed that it sounded good and with his dream approval, I published the suggestion in Science.

It is difficult but interesting to try to account for the degree of success that I have had in scientific work. My inclination is certainly far removed from that of a more or less typical scientist who finds a little niche in which he can work undisturbed to satisfy his creative and scholarly urge by learning more and more about less and less. Although I used persistence over a period of years until the pantothenic acid problem was solved, as soon as its structure was determined and the synthesis accomplished, I turned my thought in different directions, and as the years have passed I have extended my interests to much wider fields, even far beyond the realm of chemistry as it has traditionally developed.

My chief contributions in my opinion have been of the sort that could be made only as a result of much thought and pondering and relatively little plodding directly related to the work of others. Actually, I think intuition and often rather suddenly grasped ideas have played an important part in my work. The conviction that "yeast growth substances" would turn out to be biochemically fundamental seems like an obvious one now, but did not seem so when I was on the few who believed in and acted upon the conviction. The idea of using microorganisms to study the B vitamins in their relation to cancer was a long range idea which has gained generous support from the Clayton Foundation for Research, and will in the end, I believe, pay off.

Although I do not pride myself on being particularly skillful as an experimenter, I have been mainly responsible for developing a few tricks and gadgets that have proved productive: fractional electrical transport, turbidimeter for measuring microorganisms in a suspension, ascending paper chromatography and oxidation equivalent analysis.

Doubtless I will be remembered for a time by posterity as the discoverer of pantothenic acid and as contributor to knowledge about the B vitamins generally, but my most important and far reaching contribution is that embodied in the books The Human Frontier, and later Free and Unequal and what has grown out of the basic idea contained in these volumes.

Briefly stated, this idea is that human differences (differences between individual human beings) are widespread, often of great magnitude, and demand careful and extended study and attention, in order that human understanding may progress and better human relations be accomplished. These differences, I contend, are politically extremely important because they are the basis for our love of freedom; they are important because appreciation of them is essential to good will, tolerance, human communication and human understanding; they are important because many medical and other human problems can never be solved until these differences are carefully studies and fully appreciated.

At the time The Human Frontier was written I thought of the venture as something related to biochemistry by only rather remotely. As investigation has proceeded and time has elapsed, I have come to realize that biochemistry is destined to play the crucial role in demonstrating the validity of my basic thesis and in ushering in a new era of human understanding. There are so many measurable biochemical differences (about which there can be no argument) and I believe these will prove to be the keys to the solution of a host of human problems. Once the principle is established that genetically determined human differences are highly important and require study, I believe the results of this study will carry conviction and that momentum will guarantee that the subject will be pursued with vigor.

Down through the centuries the idea has been handed down that understanding man, is the chief goal of those who are concerned with human betterment. Alexander Pope expressed this in his famous line, "The proper study of mankind is man." Alexis Carrel based his book Man the Unknown on the same fundamental idea. Stuart Chase in his Proper Study of Mankind gives an eloquent plea looking toward the same goal. In my opinion the basic desideratum is not understanding man but understanding men and women, real people. Their differences (biochemical and otherwise) are so substantial that we cannot neglect these differences and solve human problems. Medicine has been inordinately concerned with how the human body functions, and has paid very little attention to the striking genetic differences that are on every hand. Our explorations of individual metabolic patterns show enough promise so that one leading medical man has said, "In my opinion individual metabolic patterns will do for medicine what Newton’s Principia did for Physics." It is worthy of note that the ideas which I have tried to express in my recent books have had the whole hearted endorsement of at least two leading anthropologists (Hooton, Coon) and four leading psychologists (Seashore, Nafe, Cattell and Patterson). Samuel Stouffer, Harvard Sociologist told me about seven years ago, "Thirty years hence your book, The Human Frontier, will be looked upon as an epoch-making book." If I had imagined in my college days that I could have become a leading proponent of such an important idea I would have known that I was imagining and that it could never be a reality!

Roger J. Williams

April, 1954

Austin, Texas