William Thomas (Bill) Williams [1913-1995]

By March 31st, 2011


William Thomas Williams was born in Fulham, London, on 18 April 1913, the only child of Thomas and Clara Williams. His father suffered from asthma and so had left Wales, where he had been a coalminer, to work in London but at what has not been ascertained. Whatever it was, his mother found it necessary to work as a midwife and charlady to ensure that Bill received a good education. Having no siblings, Bill spent much of his childhood at the home of his lifelong friend and scientific colleague David Goodall, whose family he sometimes accompanied on their annual holidays.

With the assistance of scholarships, Bill was educated first at the Stationers’ Company’s School in north-east London, where he was a brilliant student, and then at the Imperial College of Science and Technology, London, where he graduated BSc with First-Class Honours in 1933. He obtained a PhD in 1940 at the Imperial College of Science and Technology in London and in 1956 was awarded a DSc by the University of London. He was also an Associate of the Royal College of Science (ARCS 1933) and a Diplomate of the Imperial College (DIC 1940). In 1973 he was awarded a Doctorate of Science (honoris causa) by the University of Queensland in acknowledgement of his unstinting advice to its postgraduate students.

In England

In England, except for a period of four years in the Army, Bill was an academic botanist and taught at Imperial College (1933-36), Sir John Cass Technical College (1936-40), Bedford College for Women (1946-51) and the University of Southampton (1951-65) where he was Professor and Head of Department. His fourteen years in Southampton were busy and happy times. He enjoyed his teaching and built up the Department by attracting active and able staff and postgraduate students of whom several became collaborators. In the early days at Southampton Bill maintained his research interest in plant physiology, but he encouraged others to pursue their individual interests while promoting collaborative projects in which he was often involved.

Shortly after the outbreak of war in 1939, Bill enlisted. He did not declare his academic qualifications and so began his military career as a private. Not surprisingly, his scholarship could not be disguised indefinitely, and on 20 October 1941 he was commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant in the Royal Army Ordnance Corps. A year later he was appointed Acting Captain at the Ministry of Supply’s Air Defence Research and Development Establishment. Early in 1943, he transferred to a new service, the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers, which was concerned with the development of radar, and in August 1944 he was appointed a war substantive captain and temporary major in what was now known as the Radar Research and Development Establishment. One task of this Establishment was to train radio maintenance officers, many of whose backgrounds were in the biological rather than the physical sciences.


In 1963, Godfrey Lance, who had co-operated with Bill at Southampton from the mid-1950s until 1960, was appointed Chief of CSIRO’s Division of Computing Research in Canberra. The Division had sections located in all state capitals but as a matter of policy all computing research was carried out at the Division’s headquarters in Canberra. Lance appreciated that Bill’s talents would be invaluable to Australia and in 1965 invited him to visit for a few months. During this visit Bill lectured and met many scientists during numerous visits to CSIRO Divisions, including one to the Division of Irrigation at Griffith in New South Wales. There Eric Hoare, also an erstwhile Englishman, ‘beered’ and dined Bill and took him on an extensive trip into the outback. On waving ‘Goodbye’ at the end of Bill’s visit to Australia, Lance promised to keep in touch but was pleasantly surprised when, within a week, Bill wrote asking if he could come to CSIRO on a permanent basis. The Executive was easily persuaded to offer an appointment at the Division of Computing Research in Canberra as a Principal Research Scientist. Bill accepted this offer and in 1966 he migrated to Australia.

On his appointment to CSIRO Bill signed an affirmation of allegiance, thereby becoming an Australian citizen. This move he never regretted and in a letter to Dr Victor Burgmann following his election as a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science wrote:

The Fellowship gives me great pleasure, Australia has been very kind to me, and I have always been anxious to repay the debt

With Bill’s departure from Southampton, the University lost an able professor and the Agricultural Research Council lost a valued member. In response to a request for a reference for the Canberra position, Sir Gordon Cox, Chairman of the Agricultural Research Council, wrote:

In my work I have to learn whether I can rely on the scientific judgement of others, and I can say without hesitation that I know no one in whose scientific judgement I have greater confidence than Williams

These words were a signal tribute to the high esteem in which Bill was held in England. In Canberra, however, he found the climate too cold and after two years he transferred to the Division of Tropical Pastures in Brisbane where he worked for five years until his retirement. He then moved to the warmer climes of Townsville. When Les Edye heard of Bill’s plans to go north, he kindly offered to help in any way possible.

Well there is just one thing I’d appreciate

Although Bill officially retired at 60, during the following twenty years his research publication rate scarcely declined. This productivity resulted partly from his having been appointed a consultant to the Davies Laboratory in Townsville. This was a branch of the Division of Tropical Pastures and so he was familiar with its research program. The consultancy supplemented his pension and also enabled him to complete projects begun in Brisbane. In addition, he was a consultant to the Australian Institute of Marine Science and informally offered advice to students and staff of the James Cook University of North Queensland.

Post retirement activities

Although Bill’s contribution to most of the publications that appeared in his retirement was methodological, his collaboration with Les Edye was an exception in that it was closely allied to agricultural problems akin to those with which he had been involved in England as a member of the Agricultural Research Council. In a series of seventeen papers dealing with introductions of Glycine and Stylosanthes, they demonstrated the power of clustering analysis for making agronomic sense of the variation observed in field trials. The economic importance of this research was recognised when Les Edye was successfully nominated for the prestigious Sir Ian McLennan Achievement Award and the Cattleman’s Union Industry Research Medal for his role in effecting pasture improvement in northern Australia.

Scientific contributions

Details of his scientific contributions over his career can be found in the biographical memoir written by Trevor Clifford in 1998 and available by following the link in the Source details below. His research interests were broad and fell into two quite separate categories plant physiology and pattern analysis.

Plant physiology

He was mostly concerned with leaf expansion and stomatal action, topics into which he had been indoctrinated by Professor OVS Heath at Imperial College. Bill’s research on these subjects was competent and meticulously quantified but nonetheless somewhat pedestrian by subsequent standards, for at that time the transmission electron microscope was not generally available and the refined biochemical tools available today had not been developed. Bill’s analysis of the available data was adequate but reads a little like a Conan Doyle short story. The similarity is not unexpected for Bill was a great admirer of Conan Doyle whom he regarded as a competent scientist. Although listed in several publications as a sometime secretary of the Sherlock Holmes Society, no record of his membership can be located. Therein lies a mystery worthy of the great detective himself.

Once given the opportunity to employ his mathematical as well as his biochemical skills, Bill did so with finesse, as in a paper dealing with the transpiration of Pelargonium leaves undergoing wilting. Noting that the process involved the loss of both heat and mass to the surrounding air, he undertook a series of experiments that measured only the water loss. His neglecting heat loss may indicate that he regarded this as of negligible significance compared with that of water loss, or it may reflect an unconscious but persistent preoccupation with stomatal mechanisms. Nonetheless the experiments performed were elegant and enabled physical meanings to be given to the arbitrary constants in a series of transpiration equations proposed by Hygen. It is a testimony to Bill’s unfailing courtesy that his paper, in which he was mildly critical of Hygen, was published with that author’s knowledge and approval.

Statistical ecology and pattern analysis

After ten years of studying stomatal behaviour, Bill was growing tired of the subject. Therefore when approached by his colleague Joyce Lambert for advice on how to take unbiased samples of vegetation and sort them without any preconceived ideas as to how they should be grouped

As an undergraduate Bill had attended Eric Ashby’s lectures on statistical ecology and so was familiar with the subject as it had been grappled with up to that date. Furthermore, because he exchanged reprints with David Goodall, a botanist inclined to statistics, he had a copy of his friend’s brilliant paper in which a solution to the problem raised by Joyce Lambert was offered.

Bill rapidly mastered the art of writing programs for the then recently installed Ferranti Pegasus Computer at Southampton. Furthermore, he was highly skilled in the art, as was shown by his Association Analysis program which, written in machine language, had only one bug and this one that appeared only when more than 38 species were to be considered.

In Godfrey Lance, at that time the Director of the Computer Centre, Bill found a congenial colleague. The two went on to collaborate fruitfully for nearly thirty years and to co-author many joint papers. The last of these was a note in which they commented upon the success of their mixed data classificatory program

As a logical positivist, Bill found in classificatory problems a perfect outlet for his interest in logic and an opportunity to apply his considerable mathematical skills. He soon expanded from the manipulation of binary to continuous and multistate variables, and became immersed in multivariate analysis where the psychologists had already developed a formidable array of techniques centred on factor analysis and principal components (eigenvectors). Information measures soon joined his armoury of techniques.

Quite early in his studies, Bill suspected that several of the clustering strategies then in common use were related in a simple fashion. This suspicion proved to be true and with the co-operation of Godfrey Lance he showed that five of the strategies nearest and furthest neighbour, median and group average, and median (but only when similarities were based on distance-squared) were variants of a simple linear model. As each of the strategies results in a different intensity of clustering, the linear model was later amended to allow the user to obtain clustering intensities intermediate between those commonly employed.

From the beginning, Bill and his collaborators appreciated that the classificatory strategies being developed were applicable not only to ecological data but to almost any set of objects for each member of which a series of comparable observations was available. Accordingly, he and Joyce Lambert wrote on the application of multivariate methods in taxonomy and shortly afterwards, when he visited Australia, Bill undertook a numerical classification of the algal genus Chlorodesmis. Bill’s enthusiasm was infectious and extended to others in the department at Southampton. Amongst these was Leslie Watson who was interested in higher-level classifications where it was easy to become overwhelmed with data. The two collaborated in a study concerning angiosperm classification. Shortly after Bill’s migration to Australia, Watson took up a position at the Australian National University where he considerably extended the application of numerical methods to the classification of the world’s grasses.

Seeking patterns in other people’s data suited Bill’s temperament and became central to his research in Australia. It led to the production of many co-authored papers, few of which he initiated unless the topic involved extending the application of the methodology of classificatory strategies that he had helped to devise.

In general, Bill was little interested in the source of the data. According to Len Webb, who once inveigled him into the field to become personally acquainted with the vegetation they were jointly describing (see Rainforests – Australian’s green cathedrals), Bill said the scene meant nothing to him and it was only the data that were meaningful. This indifference may have resulted from his being interested solely in numbers, or it may have stemmed from his colour-blindness. Bill’s indifference to the source of data was almost certainly associated with his interest in logic as expressed in algebraic formulations.

The modesty and willingness with which Bill applied himself to data collected but not analysed by others is remarkable. Through his ability to detect patterns in a very wide range of data, especially that collected by agriculturalists, he rescued from oblivion a vast amount of valuable research not amenable to standard statistical analysis. His appointment to the then Division of Tropical Pastures of CSIRO was largely predicated on the understanding that he would look through their unpublished files and extract anything publishable. So successful was he in this regard that on any cost-benefit analysis his appointment must be regarded as akin to a bargain.

Bill’s analyses were not always appreciated, however, by those whose view of research was to set up testable hypotheses. Whilst there is some justification for such criticism, his claim was that it was better that patterns, no matter how weak, be detected than that the data remain unresolved. Bill regularly stressed that computer classifications are in no sense absolute and carry no authority but suggest to a user, what boundaries between groups might repay further study

Although neither of these concepts has persisted in a formal sense, that of utility

His interest in the search for patterns, together with his genial personality and penetrating insight, made him an attractive colleague to a very diverse group of scientists. The range of topics on which he wrote is astonishingly broad. It includes papers on temperate and tropical ecology, benthos, bird and foram distribution, the taxonomy of grasses, algae and monocotyledons, grazing and fertiliser trials, crop and silage chemistry, the ripening and packaging of fruit, the behavioural outcome of parental deprivation, and the qualities of travel agents. This list does not include the numerous methodological papers he wrote.

Musical ability

Bill’s passion for music manifested itself at an early age. He taught himself to play the piano and enjoyed singing, as did his friend David Goodall. The two used often to sing duets to Bill’s accompaniment on the Goodall family piano. Bill also taught himself to read and write music. David’s sister Joyce remembers him writing a simplified version of Rhapsody in Blue for her twelve-year-old friend Connie, who still plays the tune seventy years later at meetings of her local ‘Pensioner’s Athletic Club’.

However, it was not until he came to Australia that Bill studied the piano seriously, electing to take lessons from Larry Sitsky of the then Canberra College of Music. From then on he was a dedicated musician. After transferring to Brisbane, Bill continued his keyboard studies with Alan Lane of the Queensland Conservatorium. The two quickly found common interests, particularly in their regard for twentieth-century music, and their weekly meetings became more than just instrumental instruction. Alan says:

Bill’s mixture of talent, intelligence, character and open self-criticism was an ideal platform for rapid progress and the development of professional awareness. His wealth of experience and understanding allowed his piano studies to be absorbed within a much wider framework than is usual.

Although in Queensland there are no government requirements or registration for setting up as a private music teacher or performer, Bill was well aware of the usefulness of publicly recognised credentials and he gained both his AMusA and LMusA performance diplomas with very high results. Once resident in Townsville, he took pupils and was for a time Chairman of the Townsville Music Teachers’ Association. As a result of these activities he discovered a number of local pianists who would be delighted to play a concerto movement in public but could not afford the costs associated with entering the nearest competitions, which were held in Brisbane. In 1980, Bill overcame their problem by organising the first North Queensland Piano Competition, choosing Alan Lane as the adjudicator. The concept was popular and in 1988 it expanded into the North Queensland Concerto and Vocal Competition, with Bill as patron.

He also fostered the musical life of the city by being deeply involved in the affairs of the Townsville Community Music Centre, by serving as a music presenter on Radio 4TTT, and by arranging musical evenings at his home. In appreciation of these services, Bill in 1991 received a Townsville City Council Arts, Culture and Entertainment Award. Furthermore, he was generous with his extensive library of books, scores and records and gave many people a key to his house so they could use the collection in his absence. Fortunately the collection has been preserved, for Bill bequeathed it to the James Cook University of North Queensland where it is available in the Department of Music and Fine Arts.

Because it was Bill’s custom to play mezzo piano, he was in demand as an accompanist. This preference for mezzo piano was in stark contrast to that of his friend and near neighbour, the distinguished concert pianist Nancy Weir, who preferred the forte piano. In consequence they rarely played duets though they were often soloists on the same program.

Other interests: theatre, radio and television

In addition to music, Bill in his younger days was active in the theatre. In about 1930 he and David Goodall played the roles of Bottom (DWG) and Oberon (WTW) in a North London production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

In England, Bill for many years took part in BBC television and radio programs including the Brains Trust. In Australia, the ABC radio series Insight and Ockam’s Razor gave him the opportunity to display his wit and penetrating insights into many controversial issues on which a scientist might be expected to have an informed opinion. He was at his best when producing short pithy articles such as those published in The Listener, and the Australian radio talks reproduced in his book, The Four Prisons of Man, and Other Insights.

In one of his last broadcasts, The Tape of Many Colours, he tackled two controversial topical issues where he felt emotion rather than logic had gained the upper hand. Logic, his lifelong companion, compelled him to be critical of both the Green Lobby

Personal characteristics

Amiable at all times, Bill was nonetheless eccentric in several aspects of his behaviour. His reluctance to wear shoes or a tie in Queensland and elsewhere could be regarded variously as an affectation, an indifference to dress codes, or a conscious desire to be unconventional to name a few of the possibilities. On one occasion he was not allowed to eat breakfast at the Hotel Windsor in Melbourne because he was deemed to be improperly attired. At the ‘Royal Exchange’ in Brisbane, however, he always wore sandals and so conformed with the pub culture he so much admired. Such conformity was in marked contrast to his behaviour in Mareeba where, after leaving the pub, he repaired to the median nature strip, divested himself of his shirt and lay on the lawn to sleep in the sun. He always feigned surprise that he was questioned by the police for this action, although a person of his education and the holder of a commission in the British Army is unlikely to have been ignorant of the law appertaining to vagrancy.

He had a deep attachment to the ‘pub culture’ that he discussed so eloquently in the third of his talks in the ABC Insight series, The Three Cultures. Therein he described the direct personal culture of the working man’s public bar. It is a culture that has been much reviled, but little understood.

It is unfortunate that Bill’s account of The Bernie-and-Bill Pub Pilgrimage

In contrast to his apparent feelings of insecurity with people, Bill had no hesitancy in accepting the companionship of dogs. He spoke at length about this in a broadcast entitled A Man and His Dog wherein he wrote: But a dog offers silent companionship; and in that gracious silence there need be no more than a gentle scratch behind the ear, acknowledged by an affectionate lick. No more is asked, and no more is needed.

In the middle of the afternoon a few weeks after this broadcast, Bill tripped over a panel of wire fence lying on a pathway in the grounds of the Causeway Hotel. In falling he sustained serious injuries and died five days later. Joyce Ashby remembers the teenaged Bill as a kind, thoughtful, amusing person

Honours and awards


1978 Fellow, Australian Academy of Science (FAA)
  Fellow of the Institute of Biology
  Fellow, Linnean Society (London)


1980 Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) – a pioneer in the application of computer science to agricultural and biological problems
1973 Doctorate of Science (honoris causa) by the University of Queensland

Committees and societies

1966 President of Section M, ANZAAS
  Member, Governing Body of the Glasshouse Crops Research Institute
  Member, Agricultural Research Council Potato Marketing Board Research and Development Committee
  Member, Classification Society
  Member, Biometric Society
  Member, Society for Experimental Biology

Positions held

1968 – 73 Senior Principal Research Scientist, CSIRO Division of Tropical Pastures
1966 – 68 Senior Principal Research Scientist, CSIRO Division of Computing Research
1951 – 56 Professor of Botany and Head of the Department of Botany, University of Southampton
1946 – 51 Lecturer, Bedford College for Women
1941 – 46 Military service with the Royal Artillery (Sergeant), Royal Army Ordnance Corps (Second Lieutenant) and Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers (Major)
1936 – 40 Teacher, Sir John Cass Technical College
1933 – 36 Teacher, Imperial College, University of London