By Victor Yazbeck, MD
Dr. Yazbeck is an Internal Medicine Resident at SUNY Upstate Medical University in Syracuse, NY.
William J. Williams, MD, has left a unique stamp on the field of
hematology through his exemplary patient care and research, and he also
wrote “the book” on the field, editing what became for most of the
1970s and 80s one of the two most familiar English-language hematology
textbooks. The book, originally called Hematology remains in
wide use along with an expanding group of other excellent texts. To
honor his contributions as founding editor, the name of the book was
changed to Williams Hematology beginning with the fifth edition.
Dr. Williams has an established history of leadership, serving as
dean of the College of Medicine and vice president for Biomedical
Sciences at SUNY Upstate Medical University from 2002 to 2004. He was
named a Distinguished Service Professor by the State University of New
York in 2002, and he remains an inspiring teacher today, grounding
students in both the science and art of medicine.
During teaching rounds, he frequently says, “Just because someone
knows how to physically take care of a patient doesn’t mean that person
will automatically have a good doctor-patient relationship. Some of
this is instinctual, but it also must be taught and explained to
students — we can’t just expect they will pick it up by observing.”
Through his guidance of the medicine department, Dr. Williams was known
as the man with the bow tie and gentle smile who added a humanistic
touch to a competitive field. He knew each trainee well and would
occasionally surprise them with a T-shirt, a book, or a personal gift.
Dr. Williams was born in a small town in New Jersey, where he first
acquired his desire to go into medicine. His family doctor, whom he
described as a “hero,” suggested that he consider a career in medicine.
While reading the Sinclair Lewis novel Arrowsmith in college,
he acquired an interest in academic research, seeking to emulate the
book’s hero, Martin Arrowsmith, who chose a research career. Arrowsmith
was all the things Williams wanted to be, and he vowed to follow this
new role model. While an apprentice seaman in the Navy in 1945, he was
assigned to the hematology laboratory at the U.S. Naval Hospital in
Philadelphia, even though he had originally asked to go into the
chemistry lab. While he was working daily in the hematology lab, he was
able to see the close association between the laboratory and clinical
problems. With this, a career was born.
He was soon transferred to the medical school at the University of
Pennsylvania, from which he graduated in 1949. In fact, he remained
there until 1969, serving as chief of the Hematology Section and
professor of medicine, except for the 18 months he spent at Washington
University of Saint Louis, working with Carl Moore and William
Harrington. He also spent a year at Oxford University with R. G.
Macfarlane and M. Peter Esnouf. He did research on the biochemical
mechanisms of blood coagulation, specifically the initiation of blood
clotting by Russell’s viper venom and tissue factor. He also
participated in projects on methylmalonic acid excretion in vitamin B12
deficiency, carbon monoxide production as a measure of hemolysis, and
phospholipid metabolism in platelets and leukocytes. Later he studied
peripheral blood stem cells and spent a sabbatical working with Donald
Metcalf at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research.
When he joined the faculty of the State University of New York
Upstate Medical Center in 1969, he became the Edward C. Reifenstein
Professor of Medicine and Chairman of the Department of Medicine, where
he served for 22 years. In his early years, he attracted excellent
faculty members including Arlan Gottlieb, Robert Comis, and Kenneth
Zamkoff, who were the leaders of hematology-oncology at that time, and
their legacy continues to this day.
He began working on Hematology in the mid-1960s, in
collaboration with Ernest Beutler, Allen Erslev, and Wayne Rundles, who
was replaced by Marshall Lichtman after the second edition. Dr.
Williams continued as editor-in-chief through the fourth edition, when
the name was changed to Williams Hematology. The book is currently in its seventh edition.
Many residents were attracted to Syracuse because of his textbook,
and they remained on the faculty because of his outstanding leadership,
vision, and support of research and academic growth. But, most of all,
those who know him remember best his big heart and his penchant for
looking after them.
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