Williamson, Bob AO

  • Bob Williamson

    Early life and career

    Bob was born on May 14, 1938 in Cleveland, Ohio, and spent his childhood in New York City until his family relocated to London when he was 16.  Bob studied Chemistry and then did a PhD in Biochemistry at University College London, at a time when students and staff still spent much time talking, even arguing, about science and wider world issues.  When Bob finished his PhD he moved to Glasgow as a University lecturer, and 13 years on he was selected to be Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Genetics (and, for much of the time, Pre-Clinical Dean) at St Mary’s Hospital Medical School, University of London, where he was from 1976 to 1995.

    Bob has said he finds "it as difficult to describe how exhilarating it was to be able to participate in the genetics revolution".  Mary’s was a wonderful academic institution, where Fleming discovered penicillin and much of the basis of contemporary immunology was discovered; it also was passionate about research and its clinical application (the Medical School was fully integrated with the Hospital).  It was a “small is beautiful” institution, quirky (with a strong sports and music tradition), but with a cohort of the best students Bob has seen anywhere.

    After cloning the genes coding for the human globin chains, Bob attempted to define the mutations causing cystic fibrosis, Alzheimer disease, Friedreich ataxia, myotonic dystrophy and coronary artery disease.  It was very exciting for him; these days it is old hat, and similar experiments are carried out in high school laboratories, but they were one of the first groups to stand genetics on its head, turning it into a molecular science and not the study of ill-defined phenotypes. 

    Bob is proud of his 400-plus refereed career publications, including about 40 in Nature, Nature Genetics, Cell, Lancet and New England Journal, and also proud that he had the opportunity to do a lot of work with the WHO bringing these new techniques to many developing countries.

    The Royal Children's Hospital

    In 1995 Bob was recruited to become Director of the very distinguished Murdoch Institute in the RCH, which at that time focused almost entirely on genetics and which was responsible for tertiary clinical care of children with genetic disorders.  With Graeme Barnes, he helped to merge the Murdoch with the RCH Research Institute, creating the MCRI, a research powerhouse across the whole of child health, with a continuing strong focus on genetics and genomics but with equal strengths in community health, adolescent health, and all of the specialities of paediatrics.  Bob retired from the Director’s post in 2004, but is proud to continue to be an Honorary Senior Principal Fellow (Professor) of the MCRI, the University of Melbourne, and Monash University.

    Following retirement

    Since retiring, Bob has taken a major interest in national science policy and medical and scientific ethics, and have advised several Premiers, Health Ministers and Ministers for Innovation.  Although retired, he still worked until recently helping a small research group trying to coax cord blood stem cells to treat cystic fibrosis in children, and from 2009 to 2013 he was the Secretary for Science Policy of the Australian Academy of Science.

    Bob is proud to have been awarded an AO for his contributions to genetics research and ethics, particularly as he is a “new Australian”; he also has a few awards (FRS, FAA, FRCP, FRCPath, Hon FRACP, HonMD), but he is perhaps most proud of the fact that ten or more of his PhD students and junior colleagues have now been elected Fellows of the Royal Society, the Australian Academy of Science or the Australian Academy of Health and Medical Science.  He has always believed that the people you train and mentor are your real legacy.