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Robert Williams was a chemist from the United States who first synthesized thiamin, or vitamin B, as a cure for Beriberi. He advocated for fortified foods to be distributed in the United States and across the globe to prevent malnutrition, which still occurs today.

Early Years and Education

The horrific sickness, beriberi, that surrounded Robert R. Williams as a child greatly influenced his later dedication to discover a cure for the disease.

Robert Ramapatnam Williams was born on February 16, 1886, in Nellore, India. His parents were missionaries from the U.S.[1] Growing up in India, Williams witnessed many Indian military troops and his fellow youths fall ill with beriberi and die. Doctors understood very little about beriberi and many died from the disease.

In 1896, Williams’ father suffered an accident that paralyzed him. The family returned to the U.S. and settled in Kansas. At only 14 years old, he graduated from high school and enrolled at Kansas’s Ottawa University.[2] He graduated with a Bachelor of Science in 1907.[3] Williams then enrolled in the University of Chicago and, in 1908, earned a Masters in Chemistry.[4] In 1912, he married Augusta C. Parrish.[5]

Researching Beriberi in the Philippines

Robert Williams relocated to Manila in the Philippines after earning his Master’s degree. While working as a chemist, he met Edward Vedder. Vedder hired Williams to discover a beriberi cure. When the First World War broke out, he enlisted as a research chemist with the U.S. Chemical Warfare Service.

Williams transferred to the Western Electrical Company when the war ended and continued to seek a beriberi cure. He experimented on birds and rats in a homemade laboratory. He created the space in his own house and used everyday items to build lab equipment at little cost.

Beriberi translates to “I can’t, I can’t,” in the Sri Lankan language of Singhalese. It causes victims to lose heart function, even heart failure, neurological function, and damages the victim’s muscles to the point of paralysis. So they literally “can’t” walk. If left untreated, the disease kills its victims. At the time, doctors did not know if a pathogen caused the disease or a nutritional deficiency.[6]

Testing Rats for a Cure

Williams believed it to be a nutrition issue and began conducting experiments to prove his hypothesis.[7] One of the treatments tried was a brown rice bran syrup administered to a dying infant. The child recovered quickly and completely.[8] Further investigations revealed the treatment to be in the rice husk, a vitamin called thiamine. Williams isolated, split, and synthesized the compound so it could be tested.

Robert R. Williams used rats to confirm thiamin cured beriberi. He infected the rats with the disease and spun them by their tails before placing them on a flat surface. The infected rats could not recover from the head spin, while the ones who could straighten up quickly and move off were cured. Williams administered thiamine to a group of dying rats. After three days, one of the rats managed to recover from the spin and ran away. He called his friend immediately and declared, “The rats say yes!”[9]

Thiamin Saves the Children

Robert Williams conducted human trials in the Philippines soon after. He split the Bataan peninsula into two groups. The eastern inhabitant ate plain white rice plus rice coated in the newly synthesized thiamin chloride, or vitamin B. Those living in the West received just the plain white rice.

The East witnessed a dramatic decrease in beriberi deaths within a few weeks, while the western residents continued to contract beriberi. People began smuggling the thiamin-enriched rice to the West side and those with the disease began to recover.[10]

Williams requested a patent for thiamin chloride in September 1933. Many members of the scientific community thought this controversial, but the patent allowed for more competitive manufacturing. In turn, thiamin could be produced at a reasonable price for all involved. He immediately began advocating for the enrichment of food with vitamins like thiamin to combat malnutrition in the U.S. and around the world.[11]

Scientific Career and Honors

Robert R. Williams worked as the Chemical Director in Bell Telephone Laboratories for around 20 years and as a member the Department of Agriculture. The American Institute of Nutrition made him their president and the National Research Council offered him a position on the Food and Nutrition Board.[12] The Research Corporation in New York City hired Williams as their director of grants from 1945 to 1950. Then between 1950 and 1956, he served as the chairman for the Williams-Waterman Fund.[13]

The government of the Philippines made Williams an honorary member of the Philippine Society for Public Health and the Philippine Association of Nutrition. They also honored him with the Philippine Chemical Society Medal. Williams also won the Nutrition Foundation’s Babcock-Hart Award and the Elliot Cresson Medal from the Franklin Institute.[14]


Death and Legacy

Robert Williams chose not to sell the production rights or the patent for thiamin chloride, even though it could have made him rich.

Robert R. Williams never cared about making money from his discovery, only helping people.

Instead, he signed the rights over to a nonprofit foundation run by the Research Corporation of New York City. They were then used as grants to conduct more scientific research in the field of nutrition.

The money earned from Williams’ donation had funded several hundred researchers by 1966. This included an almost $300,000 grant to Christina Medical College and Hospital located in Vellore, India to build Williams Laboratories, named after Robert R. Williams.

Robert Williams wrote many original papers during his research years and wrote several books, including Toward Conquest of Beriberi and Vitamin B, and its Medical Uses, with help from T.D. Spies.[15]

Robert R. Williams died on October 2, 1965, in Summit, New Jersey.[16]

References

Bibliography

Committee on Nutrition (1966). Robert R. Williams, A Memorial Note. American Academy of Pediatrics, 38(5), 924.[1]


Fischer, J., Davis, H., & Stark, M. (2014, November 14). Meet Unsung Hero Robert Williams. Lowell Milken Center for Unsung Heroes.[2]


Williams, R. (2017). Robert R. Williams Papers, 1911-1981, (bulk 1934-1961). World Cat.[3]

Footnotes

  1. Committee on Nutrition, 1966
  2. Fischer, Davis, & Stark, 2014
  3. Committee on Nutrition, 1966
  4. Fischer, Davis, & Stark, 2014
  5. Williams, 2017
  6. Fischer, Davis, & Stark, 2014
  7. Fischer, Davis, & Stark, 2014
  8. Committee on Nutrition, 1966
  9. Fischer, Davis, & Stark, 2014
  10. Committee on Nutrition, 1966
  11. Fischer, Davis, & Stark, 2014
  12. Committee on Nutrition, 1966
  13. Williams, 2017
  14. Committee on Nutrition, 1966
  15. Committee on Nutrition, 1966
  16. Williams, 2017

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