The Wellcome Trust pays tribute to Peter Williams, its first Director

The Wellcome Trust is greatly saddened by the death of Peter Williams, its Director from 1965 to 1991 and a formidable communicator and champion of biomedical research.

Williams oversaw the transformation of the Trust from a small concern to the global charitable foundation it is today, placing key emphasis on the administration of science funding by those with first-hand laboratory and clinical experience. During his tenure the Trust became international in scope and ambition, rooted in close relationships with the research community.

Sir William Castell, Chairman of the Wellcome Trust, said: “Peter Williams not only laid the administrative base for the Wellcome Trust as we know it, he saw through the policy changes to engage with researchers and extend the rich potential of Sir Henry Wellcome’s legacy. The Trust’s current work was made possible by his ambitious vision and commitment to independence and long-term strategic governance.”

Dr Jeremy Farrar, Director of the Wellcome Trust, said: “Over 26 years as Director Peter Williams transformed the Wellcome Trust from a relatively small organisation to a globally significant agent of discovery and research leading to the improvement of human and animal health. His passion for tropical medicine shaped the Trust’s outlook and engagement with many of the issues and challenges that remain with us today. It was my great privilege to meet with Peter before I started as Director. His insight, wisdom and wonderful sense of humour were inspiring, as was his deep affection for the Wellcome Trust.”

Peter Orchard Williams was born in Trinidad in 1925, the son of a tropical botanist. Educated in Trinidad and England, he studied at St John’s College Cambridge and St Mary’s Hospital Medical School in London; he married Billie Innes Brown, a fellow medical student, in 1949. They had two daughters. He spent two years as a physician in the Royal Army Medical Corps before joining the Medical Research Council in 1955 as a medical officer.

Arriving at the Wellcome Trust in 1959, Williams found an organisation of five trustees and four administrators working from small quarters. By the time he retired in 1991 the Trust’s annual disbursements had risen from £1 million to £100 million, and with the first flotation of the Wellcome Foundation pharmaceutical company in 1986, the Trust was on course to become an entirely independent charitable foundation.

Williams’s lifelong love of biology and passion for tropical medicine was felt throughout his stewardship of the Trust and he took a keen interest in the history of medicine. The vigour of the Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine owed much to his efforts. He was a founder of the Hague Club, a think-tank of the directors of major European endowed foundations. He was also active in the Association of Medical Research Charities and, after his retirement from the Trust, served as President of the Royal Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene (1991-93). He was awarded a CBE in 1991.

Peter Williams died on 25 July 2014, aged 89. Condolences and thoughts from all at the Wellcome Trust are with his family.