Renowned cancer researcher H. G. Williams-Ashman 1925-2004

June 2, 2004

An internationally recognized authority on the biochemistry, biosynthesis, regulation and molecular mode of action of sex hormones and their roles in reproduction and in cancer, Howard Guy Williams-Ashman, PhD, the Maurice Goldblatt Professor Emeritus in the Ben May Institute for Cancer Research and the department of biochemistry and molecular biology at the University of Chicago, died from pneumonia at the University of Chicago Hospitals on May 24, 2004. He was 78.

Williams-Ashman was an authority on the male reproductive tract and the proteins that control its development and function. He performed pioneering research on the biochemistry of the male sex hormones, how these hormones influenced RNA synthesis, especially in the prostate, and the role of hormones in prostate cancer.

"He was a polymath, a deep and cultured scholar who dedicated his scientific life to investigations of the male urogenital tract, with emphasis on the prostate, and to the mechanism of androgen action," recalled Paul Talalay, MD, a former colleague at the University of Chicago and now a professor of Pharmacology and Molecular Sciences at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. "He was encyclopedic in his knowledge, very widely read, even eccentric at times. He knew all the latest developments in biochemistry but he knew just as much about classical music or the poetry of Ezra Pound."

"Guy was one of the most intellectual people I ever knew," recalled Elwood Jensen, PhD, an early member and a former director of the Ben May Laboratory and now a professor at the University of Cincinnati. "He had a great store of knowledge, keen perception and a delightful English sense of humor. I always had the utmost respect for him."

"He was a remarkable man with a great intellect, but for me his most important trait was his extraordinary enthusiasm for research," said Hari Reddi, PhD, the Larry Ellison Professor and director of the Center for Tissue Regeneration and Repair at the University of California at Davis, who was a post-doctoral student in the Williams-Ashman laboratory then joined him as a colleague in the Ben May Laboratory. "He was always accessible. We would meet for lunch almost every day and talk about what was new in science, then he would quiz me at the end of the day about what I had discovered since lunch."

He was also a wonderful teacher, added Shutsung Liao, PhD, professor in the Ben May Institute for Cancer Research at the University, who came to Chicago as a doctoral student to study androgens in Williams-Ashman's laboratory. "He taught people to think differently, to think in their own way, not how he thought, and to come up with their own discoveries. It must have worked because so many of his students went on to become distinguished scholars in their own fields."

Born in London on September 3, 1925, Howard Guy Williams-Ashman earned his BA from the University of Cambridge in 1946 and his PhD in biochemistry from the University of London in 1949. He came to the University of Chicago in 1950 as a Schwimmer Fellow in Cancer Research in the Ben May Laboratory for Cancer Research. Williams-Ashman worked with the lab's founder and director, Charles Huggins, MD, who would win the Nobel Prize in 1966 for his work on the relationship between sex hormones and cancer. Huggins, a urologic surgeon, had a powerful influence on Williams-Ashman, who devoted his career to the study of sex hormones and the male reproductive tract.

He joined the faculty in 1953 as an assistant professor in the Ben May Laboratory and in the department of biochemistry, rising through the ranks to become a professor in 1964. He then left for five years, from 1964 to 1969, to serve as director of the Brady Laboratory for Reproductive Physiology at Johns Hopkins, where he continued to study the biochemistry and physiology of the male reproductive tract and mechanisms of hormone action. In 1969, however, Elwood Jensen, who took over as director of the Ben May Laboratory after Huggins, recruited him back to the University of Chicago. Williams-Ashman stayed at the University for the rest of his career, serving as interim director of the Ben May from 1983 to 1986 and becoming a professor emeritus in 1991.

Williams-Ashman was a prolific researcher throughout his career, publishing more than 170 scientific papers. He won several honors, including election as a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (AAAS) in 1974. The AAAS granted him the Amory Prize in reproductive biology in 1975. He also received the Premio Internationale La Madonnina per le Science Mediche in 1983.

He was a member of the editorial board of several scientific journals, serving as associate editor of Cancer Research and of the Biology of Reproduction. He also served on national committees for the American Cancer Society, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the National Institutes of Health.

Williams-Ashman was also known as a teacher of both undergraduates and advanced students, instilling in them his high standards of scientific rigor and insisting that they write readable papers. "His notions of scholarship went beyond the research to its presentation," said Talalay. "There was always something lovely about the way he wrote his papers and he passed that on to his students."

A resident of the University of Chicago's Hyde Park neighborhood, Williams-Ashman is survived by his wife Elisabeth, whom he met when they were in adjoining labs at the university, and their daughters Ann Lightfoot, 44, of South Lake, Texas; Charlotte Dick, 41, of Memphis, TN; Ginger Moore, 39, of Evanston, IL; and three grandsons and two granddaughters.

A memorial service at the University is being planned for the fall.

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