Sir Alwyn Williams, frs, frse, mria, fgs

Alwyn at Glasgow - portrait

Photo by permission of Archive Services
University of Glasgow

Alwyn Williams was one of the great geologists of the latter half of the twentieth century; he was also the reforming and modernising Principal and Vice Chancellor of the University of Glasgow from 1976 to 1988. He coupled his outstanding skills as an administrator with scholarship of the highest standard and unusually combined both activities for almost all his working life.

Alwyn was brought up in Jenkin Street, Foundry Town in Aberdare and attended the local elementary school. He was born in the town on 8th June 1921, the son of David Daniel Williams and his wife Emily May, née Rogers. Alwyn was one of three children in the family living at 24 Jenkin St, together with Joseph Rogers, Alwyn’s maternal grandfather. Alwyn’s younger sister Ann1, some eighteen months his junior, graduated in science from U.C. Cardiff and now lives in Tasmania; Alwyn’s brother Emyr2 (ABCS 1940-46), seven or eight years his junior, also became a doctoral geologist, also finally settling in Hobart, Tasmania where he and his wife Mary still live. Alwyn’s father started work as a coal miner, but later progressed from a tram driver in Aberdare to an Inspector in the Transport Department of the Aberdare Urban District Council.

Alwyn’s father, Daniel Williams

Alwyn’s father D. Daniel Williams in 1935
Photo: Rhondda Cynon Tâf Libraries

Alwyn transferred to the County School in Trecynon in 1933 from The Town Council Boys' School, (now Caradog Primary School). Apart from his academic success, he was a talented athlete with a strong input to the rugby and athletic life of the school. However in 1938, his school career was interrupted when it was discovered that he had contracted tuberculosis. This was discovered when he was in the sixth form and resulted in a period at The South Wales Sanatorium in Bronllys, Breconshire. Whilst at the sanatorium he became an accomplished card player, and even excelled as a bookies runner! When he returned to the upper sixth at school in January 1940, he had just sixth months to prepare for his higher school certificate examinations. Clearly, he was well up to the task and gained certificates in History, Geography and Geology with distinctions in the last two.

He gained an entrance scholarship to U.C.W. Aberystwyth initially to study agriculture, a subject with an element of outdoor activity deemed essential for Alwyn’s health. However, when it was discovered he lacked a subject qualification necessary for agriculture he was transferred to the Geology Department. He excelled in his studies, gaining a first class degree in geology in 1943, and a year later a first in geography too. Although one of his lungs never fully recovered after TB, Alwyn returned to athletics and represented Aber in the discus and javelin. It was in 1943 that he met his future wife Joan Bevan3, a fresher at the college who was later to graduate in Welsh (1946), and to gain her Dip. Ed. (1947).

Alwyn at School

Alwyn at School
c. 1937

Emyr’s wedding

Ann, Mary, Emyr and Alwyn at the wedding of Mary Lacey & Emyr Williams
in Cardiff, 1951

Alwyn as SRC President 1944-45

Alwyn as President of the SRC
Aberystwyth 1944-5

Alwyn remained at Aberystwyth to undertake a Ph.D on the classic Lower Palaeozoic rocks in the Llandeilo area and to begin his life-long study and involvement with brachiopods. During his postgraduate years he was elected President of the Students Representative Council at Aber (the forerunner of the Students’ Union), and Vice President of the National Union of Students where he honed his debating skills and the art of managing people, both of which were crucial attributes for his future career. He gained his Ph.D. in 1946 and then in 1947 he held a Fellowship of the University of Wales at Cambridge to work with the world famous O.T. Jones who was also his doctoral thesis examiner. Simultaneously, Joan Bevan took up her first teaching post at Porth County School.

In 1948, Alwyn applied for a Commonwealth Fund Fellowship and a lectureship at Glasgow University. That he was successful in both posed an obvious problem, but that was speedily solved by Sir Hector Hetherington, Principal at Glasgow, who gave Alwyn leave of absence from the lectureship until March 1950. The intervening period was spent as a Harkness Fellow at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C. where he had the opportunity to study the remarkable collections at the institute but also struck up a long-term friendship with G. Arthur Cooper foremost of the North American brachiopod workers.

An important phase of Alwyn’s personal life also took place in the States, for in August 1949 Joan flew out to be with Alwyn and together they travelled to Toronto to be guests of Alwyn’s uncle Percy, previously a stone mason from north Wales, and aunt Margaret. There, in the Dewi Sant Church in Toronto, Alwyn and Joan were married on September 1st. Remarkably the service was conducted by the Rev Heddwyn Williams, a fellow student at Aberystwyth Theological College.

Returning to Glasgow, Alwyn took up his post as lecturer. In this capacity, he was noted for regarding both teaching and research with equal importance. Whilst there, Joan became mother to their son Gareth4 in 1952, and Siân5 in 1954. Alwyn was once again facing the possibility of stepping into one of two new posts in 1954. He had been offered a Professorship at Princeton, USA, but due to questions over his health and his involvement with the NUS, which at the time he was Vice President had a significant communist element, his US visa application was refused, so instead at the age of thirty-three Alwyn accepted the Chair of Geology at Queen’s University, Belfast. Three days after accepting the QUB post, the US visa application was granted! Those three days were ones that radically affected the future course of the Williams’ lives.

OT Jones in the field

Alwyn with OT Jones and WJ Pugh
Sept 1948

Girvan field work

Alwyn with Harry Whittington (left), Girvan, 1952

Alwyn and Joan stayed in Belfast for twenty years until 1974, during which time Alwyn was to serve as Dean of Science, Secretary to the Academic Council and, from 1967 to 1974, as Pro Vice-Chancellor. Geology at Queen’s flourished under his leadership and more staff were employed and student numbers increased dramatically. He established the Electron Microscopy Laboratory which was of benefit to his own research into the structure of brachiopod shell structures, as well as to other staff in the Science Faculty. A characteristic of his days in QUB was his desire to foster a culture of personal involvement with both his staff and students at all levels. This involved social gatherings and entertaining at his home with Joan, and by encouraging students to join staff for daily coffee and discussion in the department. Relationships with students were also strengthened by frequent field trips on which Alwyn was never happier. Indeed, it was on one such trip in northwest Donegal in 1967 that the news of Alwyn’s election to Fellowship of the Royal Society was announced, with the result that his students spontaneously organised the purchase of a set of Waterford Crystal sherry glasses from a local shop to commemorate the occasion.

Then in 1974, Alwyn took up the Lapworth Chair in Birmingham only to be invited to apply for the post of Principal of the University of Glasgow soon after in 1976. He had no idea that the position was to be offered and it came as a bombshell to him. The post at that time was a Royal Appointment, there were no applicants, and a letter came from the Secretary of State for Scotland, Willie Ross, asking if he wished to accept before he, Willie Ross, advised the Queen. In due course, documents came through appointing ’her loyal and trusty subject’ to the post of Regius Principal of Glasgow. Alwyn was the last appointed in this traditional historic way.

Alwyn with Emrys Jones

Prof Emrys Jones (LSE) and Alwyn at the wedding
of Alwyn’s son Gareth to Caroline in 1983.
Emrys (ABGS 1932-38) and Alwyn were first cousins

Alwyn faced some difficult times after arriving in Glasgow. There was a 4% cut in funding by the Labour Government increased to 8% by Mrs Thatcher when the Conservatives came into power in 1979. Alwyn immediately set in motion some tough and unpalatable proposals for rationalisation at the university and the imposition of necessary economic cuts. Without doubt these were difficult times but Alwyn’s clarity, eloquence, sense of purpose, mastery of argument and his deep understanding of the academic challenges faced by his fellow academics in a rapidly changing world eventually won through. Although he listened to the views of the staff, he forcefully saw through his own ideas, and the restructuring led to the rationalisation of the arts departments and the rebuilding of computer sciences. Nevertheless large-scale redundancies and economies became necessary in 1982 to ensure the survival of the university; indeed, Alwyn offered his own, rejected, resignation. Despite these unsettled times, and his quarrels with successive governments he gained the respect of politicians and accepted a knighthood in 1983.

Alwyn in the Glasgow Principal’s office

Alwyn in the Principal’s office
Glasgow 1985

Many other mortals would have found the pressures of the Principalship quite enough, but amazingly Alwyn continued with his scientific research in geology, as well as other professional activities, during these onerous times. Not only was he obsessive about continuing his research interests, but he also believed that it was important to encourage others in their research, and that he should lead by example. So he took on a dual workload, rising very early in the morning to put in a worthwhile session at the lab, and then switching to the Principal’s role for the rest of the day. Whilst he was Principal, Alwyn published twenty research papers.

Retirement in 1988

Alwyn and Joan
at Alwyn’s retirement in 1988

Alwyn retired as Principal in 1988 at the age of 67. But his ‘retirement’ saw him continue at Glasgow and for the first time since his undergraduate days was free to devote his efforts completely to research. During this period he was awarded grants to create a Palaeobiology Unit within the university so that he could work on the shell structure of his treasured brachiopods, resulting in a further twenty-three academic papers. In addition to this practically based work, he took on the editorship of the mammoth American Treatise on Invertebrate Paleontology, part H: Brachiopoda. Alwyn had contributed to the original two-volume edition in the 1960s, and he managed the revision with much enthusiasm, even though it involved coordinating the contributions of forty authors from around the world, at a time when his eyesight was failing due to increasingly severe macular degeneration. He managed to oversee the production of the first four volumes of The Treatise before lung cancer brought his life to an end on April 4th, 2004. The final two volumes were eventually published in Alwyn’s honour.

Alwyn was the recipient of a large number of accolades and honours. His superb and remarkable qualities as a chairman led him to accept the offer to serve on a range of committees. Some of his honours and committee positions are listed below:

President, Palaeontological Association, 1968-70
Trustee, British Museum (Nat. History), 1971-79 and Chairman of Trustees, 1974-79

Equipment and Physical Science sub-comittees, University Grants Committee, 1974-76
Natural Environment Research Council, 1974-76
Advisory Council, British Library, 1975-77
Scottish Tertiary Education Advisory Council, 1983-87
Advisory Board for the Research Councils, 1985-88

Committee on National Museums and Galleries in Scotland, 1979-81
Committee on Scottish Agricultural Colleges, 1989
Scottish Hospitals Endowment Research Trust, 1989-96

Vice-Chairman, Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals, 1979-81
Director, Scottish Daily Record & Sunday Mail Ltd, 1984-90
President, Royal Society of Edinburgh, 1985-88
Honorary Fellow of the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama 1988
Honorary Fellow, Geological Society of America, 1970-
For. Member, Polish Academy of Sciences, 1979-
Honorary Associate, British Museum (Natural History), 1981-
Honorary Degrees: DSc: Wales, 1974; Belfast, 1975; Edinburgh, 1979; Honorary LLD: Strathclyde, 1982; Glasgow, 1988; Hon. DCL Oxford, 1987; DUniv Paisley, 1993
Bigsby Medal of the Geological Society of London, 1961
Murchison Medal of the Geological Society of London 1973
Clough Medal of the Edinburgh Geological Society, 1976
T. Neville George Medal of the Geological Society of Glasgow, 1984
Lapworth Medal, Palaeontological Association, 2002.



Sir Alwyn Williams Building
University of Glasgow

Three years after Alwyn died the University of Glasgow opened a new Computer Science building named in honour of Alwyn who had done so much to promote computing at the university when he first arrived. The building was officially opened in June 2007 by Lady Joan Williams and Professor Ann Glover, Chief Scientific Officer for Scotland. The photographs below were taken during the opening ceremony.


Lady Joan Williams
at the opening ceremony, June 2007

VIPs at Computer Science umveiling

Principal Sir Muir Russell, Lady Williams
and Prof Ann Glover, Chief Scientific Officer for Scotland

1 Ann Williams graduated from U.C. Cardiff and then worked in Manchester and in London where she met Edwin Hoyle from Clydebank in Scotland. After marrying, they lived in eastern Canada for a few years, returned briefly to the UK where their daughter Fiona was born. They then moved to Tasmania where they had a second child, a son. Edwin passed away in 2008.
2 Emyr Williams also attended ABCS. He graduated in geology at Cardiff where he met and later married Mary Lacey a chemistry graduate. After his PhD, Emyr joined the Colonial Geological Survey and was briefed to produce a geological map of British Guiana. Later he joined the Australian Geological Survey and settled in Hobart. He and Mary still live there (2010) and have four children - with fiercely Welsh names.
3 Joan Bevan was born in Abergwynfi north of Maesteg but moved to Seven Sisters in about 1930 for her father to work in the coal mines there. After university, she taught initially at Porth County School, then in the primary sector. She was then a fulltime mother to both Gareth and Siân in Belfast. Later still she became a tutor in Welsh in the Department of Comparative Linguistics, and acquired a post graduate qualification in librarianship. Lady Williams was honoured in her own right with the first award of the honorary degree Doctor of the University at Glasgow. Lady Williams, who was vice-president of the Glasgow University dialectical society, was the subject of a debate at the end of Alwyn’s tenure. The motion was: "Behind every great man, there’s a great woman."
4 Gareth is currently a Professor of Medicine at the University of Bristol.
5 Siân is a haematologist at a hospital in Perthshire.

This appreciation of the life and career of Sir Alwyn Williams was compiled using the following sources:

The Guardian, Obituary, 23 April 2004
The Independent, Obituary, 12 April 2004
Sir Alwyn Williams - an Appreciation, The Royal Society of Edinburgh
Sir Alwyn Williams, The Geological Society of London Obituaries
Sir Alwyn Williams Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society,51, 437–453 (2005).
Sir Alwyn Williams, in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
Sir Alwyn Williams - an appreciation, Glasgow University Newsletter, 28 May 2004
Sir Alwyn Williams Earth Science 2000, Habitas (Belfast), Obituary
Personal communications from Lady Williams and her son Prof Gareth Williams, and the photographs they provided
and Keith Eynon (ABGS 1957-64) for the photograph of the Sir Alwyn Williams Building in Glasgow.

Postscript: A little over two years after this account was written, the death of Lady Williams was reported. She died on November 8, 2012 at Kincarrathie House, Perth. The funeral service took place on November 23, at Perth Crematorium.