Roger John Williams, biochemist, nutrition researcher, teacher, and writer, was born on August 14, 1893, one of six children of Robert Runnels and Alice Evelyn (Mills) Williams, American Baptist missionaries working in Ootacumund, India. His oldest brother, Robert R. Williams, is noted for the isolation and synthesis of thiamin (vitamin B1). Williams was brought to the United States at age two and grew up in Kansas and California. He earned a B.S. from the University of Redlands in 1914 and a high school teacher's certificate from the University of California at Berkeley in 1915. He then taught for two years. He married Hazel Elizabeth Wood in 1916. The couple raised three children. He received an M.S. in 1918 and a Ph.D. in chemistry in 1919 at the University of Chicago. The goal of his doctoral research and a subsequent year with the Fleischmann Company was to learn what makes yeast cells grow. His work led to over twenty years of biochemical research with yeast, primarily at the University of Oregon and Oregon State College, and culminated in the discovery, characterization, and synthesis of pantothenic acid, a vitamin found in all living cells. During this time he also published four textbooks on organic chemistry and biochemistry.
In 1939 Williams moved to Austin and became a professor of chemistry at the University of Texas. The next year he received the support of Benjamin Clayton of Houston to found the Clayton Foundation Biochemical Institute at the university; he was its director until 1963. During that time this laboratory discovered more vitamins and their variants than any other. Work on folic acid (which he named), pyridoxal and pyridoxamine (vitamin B6), and lipoic acid grew out of his pioneering use of microorganisms in vitamin research. The laboratory provided considerable funds for the university when it patented processes for producing pantothenic acid and vitamin B12.
Williams's honors include the Mead-Johnson Award (American Institute of Nutrition, 1941); the Chandler Medal (Columbia University, 1942); election to the National Academy of Sciences (1946); presidency of the American Chemical Society (1957; he was the first Southerner elected to this post); honorary D.Sc. degrees from the University of Redlands (1934), Columbia University (1942), and Oregon State College (1956); the Nutrition Award of the Arthur M. Sackler Foundation for the Arts, Sciences, and Humanities (1983); and commendation from the Texas Senate (1984).
Following Williams's work on pantothenic acid, his research interests broadened to include studies of individuality, which he considered his most important contribution. He stressed that inborn differences between humans are extensive, significant, and crucial to understanding and solving most human problems. He addressed these ideas in several books-The Human Frontier (1946), Free and Unequal (1953), Biochemical Individuality (1956), You Are Extraordinary (1967), and Rethinking Education: The Coming Age of Enlightenment (1986). He also became a leading advocate of advancing nutritional science in medicine and preventive medicine, as addressed in What To Do About Vitamins (1945), Alcoholism: The Nutritional Approach (1959), Nutrition in a Nutshell (1962), Nutrition Against Disease: Environmental Prevention (1971), Physicians' Handbook of Nutritional Science (1975), The Wonderful World Within You (1977), and The Prevention of Alcoholism Through Nutrition (1981). He also published 275 scientific articles.
Hazle Williams died in 1952, and Williams married Mabel Phyllis Hobson the next year. Williams was a Methodist. He was an avid golfer, walker, and fan of University of Texas athletics, and he held season football seats until his mid-eighties. Declining vigor and weakening eyesight prompted his reluctant retirement at age ninety-two. He continued to write until just days before he died of pneumonia in an Austin nursing home on February 20, 1988. He was buried in Austin Memorial Park. His papers are in the University of Texas Archives.