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Williams, Trevor Illtyd (1921–1996), writer and historian of science, was born at 12 Cotham Road, Clifton, Bristol, on 16 July 1921, the son of Illtyd Williams (1875–1947), a physics lecturer at Bristol University, and Alma Mathilde (1884–1956), née Sohlberg. His Welsh-speaking father came from Bryncethin in south Wales, and his mother was Swedish.

Williams was educated at Clifton College, and then went to the Queen's College, Oxford, where he took a chemistry degree. He worked under Howard Florey and Ernst Chain on the development of penicillin and other antibiotics between 1942 and 1945. Williams was awarded a DPhil in chemistry in 1945 as a result of his research on the isolation of helvolic acid and other antibiotics produced by the fungus Aspergillus fumigatus. He had employed the newly developed technique of absorption chromatography to purify helvolic acid and he published An Introduction to Chromatography in 1946.

As a result of meeting his old chemistry teacher from Clifton College, E. John Holmyard, Williams joined the editorial staff of Endeavour after the war. Endeavour had been founded by Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI) in 1942 as a broadly based scientific journal that would promote British science during the darkest period of the Second World War. In later years it became one of the few journals to resist the trend towards ever-increasing specialization in science and the growing gap between the professional scientist and the educated lay person. Williams succeeded Holmyard as editor in 1954 and for the next forty years, until his retirement in 1995, he edited over 1500 articles and nearly 4000 book reviews. Through his powers of persuasion and editorial ability, Williams converted Endeavour from a semi-popular magazine into a respected scientific journal. He guided the journal through changes of ownership, from ICI in London to Pergamon Press at Oxford in 1977 and finally to Elsevier Trend Journals in Cambridge in 1995. As a generalist publication Endeavour was undermined by the increasing specialization of science, and after Williams's death it was converted into a history of science journal.

As an employee of ICI Williams became managing editor of the ICI-sponsored A History of Technology, published by Oxford University Press in five volumes between 1954 and 1958. In collaboration with Thomas K. Derry, Williams used his editorial abilities to condense the five-volume work into a single-volume technological history for the lay person entitled A Short History of Technology (1960). Many years later he edited two supplementary volumes of A History of Technology (1978), covering the twentieth century; subsequently he abridged these volumes into A Short History of Twentieth Century Technology (1982).

Williams was also made ‘academic relations adviser’ by ICI in 1962 with a large budget for postdoctoral fellowships and research grants. He became interested in the relationship between universities, government, and industry and as a result he was appointed to committees of the Royal Society and the Ministry of Overseas Development. His position at ICI ended in 1974 when the company curtailed many of its academic commitments.

Although never a professional historian of science Williams became an author of several semi-popular works on the history of chemistry and the chemical industry. In 1947 ICI published Fifty Years of Progress, the Story of the Castner-Kellner Company, which was written (without acknowledgement) by Williams. Six years later The Chemical Industry, Past and Present (1953) appeared under his own name. In 1972 it was republished and adopted as an Open University set book. His most important contribution to the history of science was to edit the Biographical Dictionary of Scientists, which went through four editions between 1968 and 1994. Williams also wrote several biographies including Florey, Penicillin and After (1984) and Robert Robinson, Chemist Extraordinary (1990), these two books depicting scientists with whom he had worked and whom he respected. He also wrote A History of the British Gas Industry for British Gas in 1981 and his final book, Our Scientific Heritage, an alphabetical gazetteer of scientific sites in the British Isles, appeared a few days before his death.

Williams was respected by his fellow historians of chemistry and served as chairman of the Society for the Study of Alchemy and Early Chemistry between 1967 and 1974. For his services to the history of chemistry Williams received the American Chemical Society's Dexter award in 1976. Remarkably, in addition to his heavy workload at Endeavour, Williams was joint editor of Annals of Science between 1966 and 1974. He was appointed to the advisory council of the Science Museum, London in 1972 and remained a keen member until it was replaced by a board of trustees in 1984.

Williams's first marriage on 8 November 1945 was to Minnie Leonie, daughter of Maurice Margolis and Fanny Rosen of London. They had no children and the marriage was dissolved in July 1952. On 13 September that year he married Sylvia Irène, daughter of Archibald Armstead and Irène Alice Bruce, of Bromley, Kent. They had four sons and one daughter. Williams lived in Oxford for many years and had a weekend cottage in Wales. He died at the John Radcliffe Hospital, Oxford, on 12 October 1996, following an operation, and was cremated in Oxford on 18 October.

Peter J. T. Morris

Sources  

W. A. Campell and N. N. Greenwood, Contemporary British chemists (1971), 281–2 · P. Morris, ‘Trevor Illtyd Williams’, Endeavour, 21/1 (1997), 1–2 · WWW · D. Williamson and P. Ellis, eds., Debrett's distinguished people of today, 2nd edn (1989) · The Times (23 Oct 1996) · personal knowledge (2004) · private information (2004) [S. Wiliams, Elsevier Trend Journals] · b. cert. · m. certs. · d. cert.

Archives  

priv. coll.


Likenesses  

1976 (receiving Dexter Award from Frank Greenaway), Sci. Mus.; repro. in Endeavour, 21/1 (1997), p. 1 · photograph, repro. in The Times (23 Oct 1996) · photograph of head and shoulders, repro. in Campbell and Greenwood, Contemporary British chemists (1971), 281