Bill’s formative years were spent in Stockbridge, a historic town in the Berkshire Hills of western Massachusetts.
Bill had Sunday School class in Normal Rockwell’s house and featured in the Rockwell painting “The Right to Know” (Look Magazine, August, 1968). He worked closely with Margaret French Cresson (Daniel Chester French’s daughter) to help her develop forest walks at her beloved Chesterwood (French’s summer studio, now a museum).
And he wanted to hang out at Alice’s restaurant, but was too young to be of interest to the hippies there.
Bill’s love of nature and science first developed when his mother dropped him off on Saturday mornings for the films and lectures of “The Nature Hour” led by Alva Sanborn in the Pittsfield science museum. Later, she booked him into summer camp at the Pleasant Valley Wildlife Sanctuary in Lenox, Mass led by Sanborn and Marilyn Flor.
Bill attended The Lenox School, an Episcopal school in Lenox Mass. His father Charles felt that he could not pay for this, because he was spear-heading a local movement to develop a regional high school (a public school) for Stockbridge and the surrounding towns (it eventually succeeded). So he couldn’t be seen to think that his son was too good to go to the local schools. Bill’s mother disagreed, and she single-handed paid his fees at Lenox by staying up for hours every night sewing curtains piecework for Country Curtains, a local Stockbridge company. Looking back, it is amazing the things that a teenage boy can take for granted.
At Lenox, William Wood taught him to appreciate the English language. The classes on writing and tragedy with Bill Wood were among the most influential experiences in Bill’s intellectual development. Outside the classroom at Lenox, his sole varsity sport was fencing. He fenced saber on a (usually) winning team alongside his classmate Bill Homans (aka Watermelon Slim).
The headmaster, Robert Curry, used to tell parents that these tough high school boys were actually sentimental at heart, as their favourite song at the Monday hymn sings in chapel was “Drop, drop slow tears”. (It was hymn number 69.)
Bill attended Colby College in Waterville, Maine. There his most influential professors were Roland Thorwaldsen, who introduced him to Eastern philosophy, the Painter Abbott Meader, who taught him how to really look at images, and Douglas Maier, who had a huge input in deciding the future course of his life. Dr. Maier brought biochemistry to life, exposing his students not only to the Lehninger textbook, but also to original papers and scientific gossip. It was Dr. Maier who encouraged him to apply for a National Science Foundation Graduate Fellowship. This opened the doors to any graduate school he wanted in the USA by making him a cost-free student.
Graduate Studies (1972-1977)
Bill chose MIT for his Ph.D. largely because the photographer Minor White was on the faculty of the architecture department. Bill felt that if science did not work out, he would try to develop his photography. But it did work out. Whereas he had at best, endured laboratory courses in college and generally not managed to find the frog’s vagus nerve or get the right number of grams of white precipitate, at MIT in the lab of Jonathan King he discovered the intoxication of working on a problem where no one knew the answer. It was from Jon that he learned how to think and write rigorously about science and was inspired to try and ask equally penetrating questions at seminars. They were not particularly easy years, but Bill learned a lot and the atmosphere (occasionally sweet and aromatic) in the lab was extraordinarily intellectual and exciting. Much was owed to his fellow lab members, in particular Sherwood Casjens , Peter Berget, Sam Kayman, Phil Youderian, Ruth Griffin-Shea and life-long friends Jerry Bryant and Minx (Margaret Fuller).
But arguably the most important relationship was with Steve Harrison at Harvard. Bill took a course from Steve and Don Wiley that introduced him to structural studies, and this shaped the course of his Ph.D. research – doing phage genetics, biochemistry and electron microscopy in Jon King’s lab and then small angle x-ray scattering and mathematical modelling in Steve’s lab. Steve’s kindness and management of the conversation as they sat side-by-side writing the discussion of their Nature paper on the organisation of DNA inside phage heads remain a treasured memory and shaped the way that Bill has tried to interact with his own students. As this is written in 2020, Steve has apparently been drinking from the fountain of youth, and is still as strong and inventive as ever.
After MIT, Bill went to work with Aaron Klug at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, England as a Helen Hay Whitney fellow. He had been offered positions by Don Caspar at Brandeis and Edward Kellenberger in Basel, but the LMB was Mecca for him. There he did very little work with Aaron, but instead worked initially on the enigmatic structure of the phage T4 long tail fiber with Tony Crowther, and then on chromatin assembly by the chaperone nucleoplasmin with Ron Laskey.
This was a time of incredible scientific freedom to develop in any direction. Conversations in the LMB canteen (run by Joy Fordham) at morning coffee, lunch and afternoon tea benefitted from an atmosphere that has seldom, if ever, been equaled anywhere else. Anyone could sit with anyone. You could sit with the group who usually talked about cars or you could sit with John Gurdon and try your best to keep up. Bill spent a lot of time with fellow Klug postdoc Jim Paulson who was then, as now, fascinated by mitotic chromosome structure.
Indeed, it was Jim who told Bill that Uli Laemmli had an opening for a senior postdoc in Geneva. Bill applied and got that job, and in 13 months with Uli, was “bitten” by the life-long fascination with the problem of mitotic chromosome structure and assembly. Working with Uli was not always easy, but being in proximity to arguably the world’s greatest ever molecular biology experimentalist was a humbling and exciting adventure.
It was Joel Rosenbaum who, while on a sabbatical visiting John Kilmartin at the LMB, introduced his running partner Bill to Tom Pollard (https://pollardlab.yale.edu)from Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. Tom and Ueli Aebi recruited Bill to the Department of Cell Biology and Anatomy as a chromatin biochemist studying nucleoplasmin. When Bill told Tom that he wanted to go to Geneva to learn a completely new experimental system and work on something entirely different from the subject of his job talk, Tom didn’t hesitate to give his support for this career change. Tom’s hiring philosophy: If you have hit one home run, then you know how to do it and you will hit another one someday.
After 13 years in Baltimore, Bill left for Scotland, lured by the vision of Ken Murray and Adrian Bird [http://birdlab.bio.ed.ac.uk] for the development of Cell Biology in Scotland, and supported by The Wellcome Trust [https://wellcome.ac.uk]. He has spent the rest of his career continuing to pursue his fascination with chromosomes, images and exploring the secrets of cell division. He has also continued a happy and exciting partnership with Tom and Graham Johnson [https://www.grahamj.com] (and more recently Jennifer Lippincott-Schwartz) in developing and continuing to refine their textbook Cell Biology.