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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Roger J. Williams: Nutrition Scientist

Roger J. Williams and Linus Pauling, 1972.

Roger J. Williams and Linus Pauling, 1972.

[Part 1 of 2]

“For about 15 years I have been working in the field of nutrition and I’ve become acquainted with many of the nutritionists, professors of nutrition. I have formed the opinion that Professor Williams is the outstanding man in this field in the world. I think that he has had the better background of training in the basic sciences which has permitted him to attack problems in this field more effectively than any other person.”

-Linus Pauling, November 1979.

Roger John Williams was a prolific scientist in the fields of biochemistry and nutrition who discovered pantothenic acid (vitamin B5) and named and researched folic acid (vitamin B9). He was also an important advocate of public health nutrition. In his writings, Williams emphasized the biochemical diversity of humans and the importance of studying individuals and their different internal environmental requirements through the prism of nutrition. As with Linus Pauling, a large part of Williams’ legacy is one of wide promotion of the importance of nutrition in health and preventative medicine.

Williams was born in Ootacamund, India, to U.S. Baptist missionary parents, on August 14th, 1893. His family returned stateside when he was two years old and he grew up in Kansas and California. He received his bachelor’s degree from the University of Redlands in 1914 and a high school teacher’s certificate from the University of California, Berkeley the following year. His undergraduate experiences with organic chemistry discouraged his initial inclinations toward graduate study in chemistry, and he chose instead to teach chemistry and physics at a local high school. During this time he also married Hazel Wood, his college sweetheart. They later raised three children together and were married for thirty-five years.

Roger Williams as a young man.

Roger Williams, age 16.

After two difficult years of teaching high school, Williams decided at last to pursue graduate school at the University of Chicago, the institution from which all three of his older brothers had graduated. Williams overcame his fear of organic chemistry with the help of a influential professor and earned his M.S. in 1918 and his Ph.D. one year later. His doctoral thesis was titled The Vitamin Requirement of Yeast, scholarship that attracted an unusual amount of attention and that proved to be the basis for much of his later work on nutrition.

Williams departed Chicago to become a professor at the University of Oregon, eventually moving to our own Oregon State University, then known as Oregon State College or OSC. During his two decades in Oregon, he continued to study yeast and human nutritional science, research that promoted the use of microorganisms such as yeast and bacteria in nutritional studies. The use of these substances sped up nutritional experimentation greatly and played an important role in advancing the fields of enzymology, genetics, and molecular biology.

While at OSC in 1933, Williams discovered and isolated pantothenic acid, also known as vitamin B5, an essential vitamin for synthesizing coenzyme-A and synthesizing and metabolizing proteins, carbohydrates, and fats. He later won both the Mead Johnson Award from the American Institute of Nutrition and the Chandler Medal from Columbia University for this discovery.

Not long after, in 1936 Williams’ oldest brother, Robert, synthesized and isolated aneurin (now called thiamin or vitamin B1), an important vitamin for human neurological processes. Roger Williams later discovered that thiamine is also important for yeast growth.


Williams during his graduate school days at the University of Chicago.

Williams during his graduate school days at the University of Chicago.

Williams and Linus Pauling met at Oregon State College, where Pauling had received his baccalaureate degree in 1922. In 1936 Williams and Pauling began to correspond about Williams’ research on pantothenic acid, Williams requesting Pauling’s help in determining the structure of the substance using x-ray crystallographic techniques. Pauling agreed to help because he was very interested in Williams’ research, and the two continued their correspondence into the following year.

Amidst this scientific collaboration, Williams also wrote to Pauling to complain about the state of the chemistry department at OSC. Pauling, in turn, wrote a letter to the state’s chancellor of higher education, suggesting that the head of the OSC chemistry department, Professor John Fulton, retire and be replaced by Roger Williams. Pauling wrote a glowing recommendation of Williams, noting that

Professor Williams is recognized throughout the country as an outstanding teacher of chemistry and an outstanding research man. His text-books in organic chemistry and biochemistry are widely used and show him to be a thoroughly well trained and able chemist and teacher. His researches and in particular his recent work on pantothenic acid constitute the most important chemical contribution that has been made from Oregon.

Pauling’s interest in the situation did not end with this recommendation. After a visit to Corvallis to give a speech for the Sigma Xi scientific research society, Pauling investigated Fulton by writing a letter of inquiry to Harvard University. He found that Fulton had only finished one course at Harvard, for which he received a C. The rest of his coursework had never been completed. Williams and Pauling thus concluded that Fulton had a phony master’s degree on his vita.

Pauling’s advocacy of Williams apparently fell on deaf ears. In December 1939 Williams wrote to Pauling of a deteriorating environment at OSC and his decision to move on.

I have come to the decision that I must sever my connection with this institution as soon as I can make arrangements to locate elsewhere….The atmosphere in which I have found myself has often not been stimulating and continual annoyances are bound to wear away one’s spirit.

Williams’ departure was Oregon State’s loss; as it turned out, Pauling was correct in his evaluation of Williams’ abilities.


The decision to move having been made, Pauling continued to look out for Williams’ interest, writing query letters to multiple universities recommending the addition of Williams to their departments. In short order, Williams found a position as professor at the University of Texas at Austin. Williams expressed gratitude to Pauling for his assistance in the process and the two made a habit of sharing ideas on possible additions to each other’s departments for many years.

Williams ca. 1950s.

Williams ca. 1950s.

In 1941 Williams founded the Clayton Foundation Biochemical Institute at the University of Texas, serving as its director until 1963. Under Williams’ leadership, more vitamins and their variants were discovered at the Clayton Institute than at any other laboratory in the world. It was during this period that Williams first concentrated and named folic acid, or vitamin B9, an essential vitamin for DNA processes and red blood cell production. Sadly, it was also during this period, in 1952, that Williams’ first wife Hazel died. He married Mabel Phyllis Hobson the next year and the couple traveled extensively together all over the world, remaining happily married until Roger’s death in 1988.


In 1964 the volume of letters exchanged between Williams and Pauling began to increase, because Williams was writing a book and he wanted Pauling’s input. You Are Extraordinary, published in 1967, emphasizes as its central theme the crucial need for scientists to consider people as individuals, rather than focusing on the average human being. Pauling respected this idea so much that he devoted a whole chapter of his own book, Vitamin C and the Common Cold, to Williams’ ideas, extrapolating from them that individuals have unique vitamin C requirements, person to person.

Williams later in life.

Williams later in life.

In 1970 Williams made news through his publication of an article about an experiment that he conducted on rats in which he fed standard enriched white bread to one group and bread further enriched with trace minerals, vitamins, and protein to a second group. The second group fared much better than the first and he used these results to argue that bread manufacturers in the U.S. should change their enrichment protocols to add more nutrients. In response, corporations in the bread industry stated that they would not make any changes until they were recommended by the Food and Drug Administration.

Interestingly, Williams’ older brother Robert was the scientist who devised the original enrichment recommendations. Enrichment standards are necessary because the typical industrial process of milling white flour in the U.S. removes many of the important nutrients naturally available in grains. Before white bread was enriched, many Americans suffered from B vitamin deficiencies. Roger Williams argued that his brother’s original recommendations were good in 1941, but that thirty years later they could be markedly improved upon.

Williams’ push coincided with problems that Linus Pauling had been facing in his own nutritional research. Both scientists felt that nutrition research was not well respected by medical doctors and most scientists, and thus its importance was downplayed or disregarded. Because of the low degree of institutional esteem afforded to work on nutrition, insufficient funding was available to the field.

Though fighting headwinds on numerous fronts, Roger Williams was well-respected within his own community of researchers.  In alignment with Pauling’s ideas related to orthomolecular psychiatry, he served as a founding fellow of the Academy of Orthomolecular Psychiatry in 1971. That same year, Williams became an Emeritus Professor of Chemistry at the University of Texas, though as we’ll see, the vigor of his work did not diminish in retirement.

Casimir Funk and a Century of Vitamins

Casimir Funk, 1884-1967

One hundred years ago, in 1911, the Polish-born biochemist Casimir Funk published his first work on vitamins, titled “Experiments on the causation of Beri-Beri,” in the British Medical Journal, The Lancet.  Curiously, the word “vitamin,” coined by Funk, was missing from this paper as the Lister Institute in London, for which Funk was working at the time, did not accept the designation. It was not until 1912 that Funk was able to use his new word in a formal publication, the term appearing for the first time in the Journal of State Medicine.

And so began a new path of scientific inquiry into vitamins as constituents of food necessary to the maintenance of good health – an entire discipline whose start can be attributed in large part to Funk, the “father of vitamin therapy.” That said, even one-hundred years ago, it is apparent that Funk drew from what was already known about deficiency-related diseases as he charted his own experiments.

Before Funk’s time, it had already been established that certain foods acted like drugs in their capacity to prevent certain diseases. In the mid-1700s, Scottish physician James Lind conducted an experiment on sailors suffering from scurvy, a disease which is characterized by spots on the skin, spongy gums, and bleeding from mucous membranes. This ailment plagued many sailors who were at sea for longer than fruit could be preserved, and was suspected to be caused by a lack of fresh foods.

Lind tested this hypothesis by feeding one group of sailors two oranges and one lemon every day, while several other groups of sailors consumed a different diet that included garlic, mustard seed, cider and sea water. The two sailors who were given citrus fruits recovered from their symptoms of scurvy, while the others remained in the same condition or worsened. Lind came to the conclusion that citrus fruits were the cure for scurvy. Casimir Funk later discovered that diseases similar to scurvy, such as beriberi and pellagra, were likewise the physical manifestation of a nutritional deficiency.

Kazimierz Funk (“Casimir” is an anglicized form of his given name) was born in Warsaw, Poland, in 1884. He became interested in pathology and physiology at the age of fourteen, and at sixteen he went to Geneva, Switzerland to study the natural sciences – just the start of what would prove to be a peripatetic academic career. Funk later studied chemistry at Berne for three years, eventually focusing on organic chemistry under the supervision of Stanislaw Kostanecki.

His interests in the human body and chemistry eventually led to a program of research on “trace elements” in humans, carried out in 1904 at the Pasteur Institute with Gabriel Bertrand.  Funk’s trace elements work relied upon his ability to synthesize both organic bases and amino acids. Two years later he moved to Berlin, which was the world’s most scientifically vital city at the time. In Berlin, Funk and Nobel laureate Emil Fischer, a leading organic chemist of the period, undertook an analysis of amino acids – the building blocks of proteins – specifically focusing on the structures of cysteine and alanine.

Emil Fischer

At the same time that he and Fischer were analyzing amino acids, Funk accepted a position as a biochemist working for the municipal hospital in Wiesbaden. It was there that he came to the conclusion that foods could be divided into two categories: food that encouraged tumors and that which discouraged them. Funk also observed that “poor” proteins seemed to be poisonous to animals.  In an experiment conducted with Emil Abderhalden  – at the time one of Fischer’s assistants – one dog was fed horsemeat mixed with glucose and butter, while another dog was fed gliadin with glucose and butter. In fifteen days, the first dog gained 150 grams of protein while the second dog lost 450 grams. Based on this data, the American duo of Thomas Osborne and Lafayette Mendel showed that gliadin and edestin are “poor” proteins.

In 1910 Funk began the studies that led to his discovery of the vitamins when he traveled to London to work at the Lister Institute, and met its director, Charles Martin. Martin and Funk discussed the disease beriberi, which is found in populations of people who eat polished rice but not in those who eat the rice polishings. Beriberi was at one time fairly common among populations where rice is a staple, specifically in east Asia, and in its final stages caused paralysis and death.

Funk knew of a disease in pigeons called polyneuritis that is equivalent to beriberi in humans – it occurred in pigeons that had been fed exclusively polished rice. It had been previously supposed by the English scientist Leonard Braddon, and later the Dutchman Christiaan Eijkman, that the endosperm of rice contains a poison, while the cortical layers – the “polishings” – contain the antidote. Funk, however, conducted preliminary experiments in which he administered a diet of various pure carbohydrates – such as starch, insulin, cane sugar and dextrin – and found that they all induced polyneuritis when administered alone. He came to the conclusion that there was no toxic agent at fault; rather, polyneuritis and beriberi were caused by a deficiency of some essential ingredient missing in polished rice.

From there, Funk performed a series of tests which fractured rice polishings into two sections, A and B. He gave one set of polyneuritis-stricken pigeons fraction A, and another set of pigeons fraction B. The pigeons which were given fraction A died, while the group that was given fraction B recovered. Funk further broke down fraction B, and discovered that very small “trace elements” of fraction B could cure pigeons of polyneuritis. He named this trace element a vitamin: “vita” meaning life and “amine” meaning a nitrogen-containing compound.  The word “vitamin” then, stands for “a life-sustaining compound containing nitrogen.” (Though as it turns out, Funk was mistaken about the “amine” part.) Funk named this first vitamin “B1,” now known as thiamine. He published his second paper on the vitamins, “On the Chemical Nature of the Substance which Cures Polyneuritis in Birds Induced by a Diet of Polished Rice,” in 1911.

Funk was sure that more than one substance like Vitamin B1 existed, and in his 1912 article for the Journal of State Medicine, he proposed the existence of at least four vitamins: one preventing beriberi (“antiberiberi”); one preventing scurvy (“antiscorbutic”); one preventing pellagra (“antipellagric”); and one preventing rickets (“antirachitic”). From there, Funk published a book, The Vitamines, in 1912, and later that year received a Beit Fellowship to continue his research.

For several years following the publication of his book, Funk served as director of the Hygiene Institute in Warsaw. At the Institute, he cured dementia symptoms in patients who suffering from pellagra by giving them vitamin B1 and adding yeast to their diet. Funk was correct in his supposition that vitamins are required for the proper metabolism of nervous tissues, and that the lack of vitamins causes the body to extract nutrients from its tissues, thus leading to weight loss as those vital resources are depleted. In 1922 Funk and Harry Dubin successfully created and marketed the first vitamin supplement containing vitamins A and D, found in cod liver oil. It was called “Oscodal” and was sold widely as a product used mostly in infant therapy.

Casimir Funk died in New York in 1967 at the age of 83.  His discovery of the vitamins is widely acknowledged as having catalyzed many more studies on and discoveries related to nutrition and health.  Among them was a 1928 project in which, after a number of efforts, physiologist Albert Szent-Györgyi was able to separate vitamin C from citrus fruits – the first instance of success in obtaining a pure vitamin. Within a few years, vitamin C (ascorbic acid) became recognized as a substance that greatly improved one’s health, and in the 1960s Linus Pauling began to take a special interest…

[Ed Note: Over the next four weeks we will mark the centenary of Casimir Funk’s discovery of the vitamins by examining a number of specific aspects of Pauling’s Vitamin C and the Common Cold.]