Roger J. Williams and the Continuing Quest for Good Health

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[Part 2 of 2]

Though ostensibly retired in 1971, the nutrition scientist Roger J. Williams continued to pursue numerous research and public advocacy interests with terrific energy. Among his many other activities, Williams was the only non-physician member of President Nixon’s Advisory Panel on Heart Disease, convened in 1972. In a letter to the Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare, Williams showed that he was ahead of his time in recognizing the importance of nutrition in reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease and other maladies.

While no one knows why heart disease is so prevalent, it is highly probable that a primary cause lies in the fact that in our industrialized age the public chooses its food only on the basis of appearance and taste, and has not been educated to choose on the basis of nutritional value. Much of our food is processed, transported long distances and kept a long time, and the purveyors of food cater to those who want attractive and tasty foods and who pay little attention to its nutritional efficacy. Modern scientific prowess has not been utilized as it should have been. Nutritional science has lagged.

Of the nineteen other members of the committee, all M.D.’s, Williams guessed that a third knew nothing about nutrition.

To combat these trends, Williams called for the establishment of nutritional research centers and the promotion of nutritional science to medical doctors and the general public. The important points that Williams made in his letter underline many of the public health goals that the U.S. government is working towards today.

Williams evinced continued frustration with this issue in a letter sent to Linus Pauling in 1975. In it, he wrote

There are so many times when I would like to consult you on matters of mutual interest….My colleagues and I are engaged in a serious campaign to contribute to the improvement of the attitudes of medical scientists, including biochemists, toward nutritional science. We are convinced, as I know you are, that unrecognized nutritional considerations are embedded in a host of health-related problems and that they go unnoticed because of the cavalier attitude toward nutrition generally adopted by medical schools and medical scientists.

In support of his continuing efforts to evoke change within the medical system’s view and understanding of nutrition, Williams edited the Physician’s Handbook of Nutritional Science, published in June 1975.  Two pieces written by Pauling – one on vitamin E and another on orthomolecular theory – were included in the text. Pauling also wrote a review of the book which, perhaps unsurprisingly, was largely favorable.

This book on nutritional science, written for physicians, may help the physicians of the United States to make up for a serious deficiency in their training…. [It] presents a generally sound treatment of nutritional science, which almost every physician could benefit by reading.

Pauling’s main criticism of the handbook was its (in his view) overly conservative treatment of vitamin C recommendations. Williams’ book suggested doses of 250 milligrams up to 1 gram of vitamin C per day; meanwhile Pauling was advocating intake as high as 10 grams per day for treatment of some diseases. This quibble aside, Pauling praised Williams’ information on biochemical individuality and the diverse nutritional needs of individuals. He also cheered the text’s sections on on orthomolecular psychiatry.


Roger Williams with the Paulings, ca. 1970s.

Roger Williams with the Paulings, ca. 1970s.

In 1976, Pauling and Williams established the Foundation for Nutritional Advancement. This non-profit organization was created to support research in the field of nutrition and to integrate nutrition into the study and practice of medicine – all areas that Williams and Pauling felt to be mostly neglected in the scientific world. The foundation issued grants to a diverse range of nutrition researchers, studying topics ranging from mental health to a wide variety of chronic diseases. It also hosted international conferences on nutrition, including one in Japan and one in China.

In announcing the launch of the organization, Williams wrote an open letter describing his and his colleagues’ motivations and intentions:

We have become increasingly and alarmingly concerned in recent years that a major aspect of health care is being almost totally neglected by medical schools and by practicing physicians….This major phase of health care which is sadly neglected involves monitoring the internal environments which surround the cells and tissues of our bodies and brains. We monitor the air and water as a matter of course, but who looks after the approximately 40 nutrient chemicals which come from the outside world and enter into our inner environments and make life and health possible? The answer is essentially, ‘No one.’

The open letter was also released to coincide with the publication of Williams’ The Wonderful World Within You: Your Inner Nutritional Environment, a book that covered the important nutritional information that Williams thought necessary for maintaining one’s health. As with Pauling’s later How to Live Longer and Feel Better, the book was written for a broad audience: Williams hoped that it would gain traction with the general public and find its way into high school curricula.

The publication of The Wonderful World Within You came about at the same time that Williams was fighting his own personal battle with mouth cancer, which was treated with chemotherapy and surgery. Although he did not use ascorbic acid as part of his own regimen, Williams’ experience convinced him that ascorbic acid should be further studied for use in cancer treatment.

As the years went by, Pauling and Williams stayed connected. In November 1979, Williams was honored by the Foundation for Nutritional Advancement at the University of Texas-Austin, with Pauling delivering the keynote lecture, focusing on his vitamin C research. The two also continued to correspond about articles that they were working on. Pauling provided considered feedback on several of Williams’ drafts, lauding him for many of the points that he made, though continually disagreeing about the place of religion in science. (Pauling made several attempts to persuade Williams to look into the Unitarian Universalist Church.) Pauling also nominated Williams for a number of awards, including the Nobel Prize, a decoration that, alas, eluded Williams.

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Williams did not fully retire until 1986 at the age of 92. In total he wrote twenty-one books – including several widely used organic chemistry and biochemistry textbooks – and nearly 300 scientific articles. He was a member of the National Academy of Sciences and, in 1957, served for a year as President of the American Chemical Society. He also received honorary doctorates from Columbia University, Oregon State University, his former place of employment, and the University of Redlands, his undergraduate alma mater.

Roger John Williams died of pneumonia on February 20, 1988 at the age of 94. When Pauling learned of Williams’ passing he sent a letter of sympathy and admiration to Roger’s wife, Phyllis. “Roger was a great man,” he wrote. “It has been one of my pleasures during recent years to have been closely associated with him. It is now about 58 years since I met him, in Corvallis. He was full of enthusiasm about his work on vitamins.”

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