Obituary: James Williams, Scot who became a respected virologist in the US

James (Jim) F. Williams, age 83, of Pittsburgh, USA, formerly of Gilmerton, Edinburgh, Scotland, passed away peacefully on Wednesday 4th November 2020.

Prof Jim Williams
Prof Jim Williams

Born in Gilmerton, Edinburgh, to John and Margaret Williams, Jim was a proud graduate of the city’s George Heriot’s School.

He was active in the local Boy Scouts troop, attending the 7th World Scout Jamboree in Austria in 1951. Jim loved spending time outside from an early age, learning about nature and helping his grandfather with his bees, experiences that lead to a long career in science.Jim was also an avid competitive cyclist, racing with the Edina Coureurs (Edinburgh) team in the late 1950s, winning the Scottish national cycling championship several times, and representing Scotland on the national team in the 1958 Commonwealth Games in Cardiff.

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During this time, Jim met his future wife, Merlyn Williams, while out dancing. He also pursued a BS degree in zoology at the University of Edinburgh, graduating in 1960. Jim continued his studies by earning MA and PhD degrees in Medical Biophysics at the University of Toronto.On July 8 1961, Jim and Merlyn were married in Toronto. The following year, their first child, Gail Anna, was born. While at the University of Toronto, Jim began research on how viruses may cause the development of cancers, which became the focus of his 50-year long scientific career.

Jim Willams

After completing his PhD in 1965, Jim received a post-doctoral position at the University of California-Berkeley. It was in California that Jim and Merlyn’s second child, Gavin John, was born. In 1967, the family returned to Scotland, where Jim took a tenured position with the University of Glasgow, Medical Research Council, Virology Unit.

In the 1970s, Jim spent time on research sabbaticals at James Watson’s Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, Long Island, NY, and at Uppsala University’s Wallenberg Laboratory, Sweden; he also attended various conferences in Europe and the United States, all the while teaching and publishing numerous papers on his ongoing research.In 1976, Jim accepted a professorship at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, where he continued his research and taught until his retirement in 2013.

Jim taught many undergraduate and graduates in his career and particularly enjoyed teaching his Introduction to Virology course each year, in which students learned about the most current viruses and their related diseases.

Jim was devoted to science, research, and education, but also loved spending time with his family. He was an accomplished photographer, and enjoyed walking in the woods around Pittsburgh and in the various National Parks the family visited on summer trips – he loved all things related to nature, especially birds. He enjoyed spending hours gardening and was an avid reader and book collector.

He is survived by his wife Merlyn and children Gail Oberkircher and Gavin Williams. Jim loved spending time with his grandchildren and great-grandchildren: Garrett Oberkircher and their children Paul, Lydia, Emily and Daniel; and Brendan Oberkircher and their children James and Ada; and Lillian Williams.

His kindness, generosity and good humour will be greatly missed by his family, friends, and colleagues.