British Heart Foundation pays tribute to Professor Alan Williams

The British Heart Foundation has paid tribute to the life and work of BHF Professor Alan Williams, who sadly died from cancer on 4th May 2020.

Professor Williams held one of the highest accolades awarded by the BHF, the Sir Thomas Lewis Chair of Cardiovascular Science, which he held from 2007 until his retirement from Swansea University in September 2019.

Professor Williams’ research started to receive funding support from the BHF in 1976, which was successfully maintained without a break until his retirement.

Early research career

Following an undergraduate degree and PhD at Lancaster University, Professor Williams joined the Cardiothoracic Institute in 1977, which was associated with the National Heart Hospital and part of the University of London. Here he worked with Professor Peter Harris, the first BHF chair and holder of the Simon Marks Chair of Cardiology.

In 1980, funded by a BHF/AHA exchange Fellowship, Professor Williams spent a period at Cornell University New York working with Professor Efraim Racker on research into mitochondria and cell membranes. He was also influenced by Professor Chris Miller, who taught Professor Williams about ion channels and high-resolution electrical recording methods – areas important for his future research career.

Returning to London in 1982 with his wife and young son, Professor Williams moved his research focus from the mitochondria to an ion channel protein that was first known as the ‘cardiac calcium-release channel’ and then termed the ‘ryanodine receptor’. This channel enables cells within the heart to regulate their contraction.

His early work on the channel laid the foundation for our understanding of how the control of ion flow across compartments in each heart muscle cell is essential for heart health. This painstaking work, funded by the BHF, led to him becoming one of the world’s authorities on the cardiac calcium release channel and ion fluxes in the heart in the early 1990s.

Unwavering commitment to science

Ken MacLeod, Professor of Cardiac Physiology at Imperial College worked alongside Professor Williams during this time. He said: “Alan will be remembered for his genial nature, unwavering commitment to high quality science and his unbiased and unassuming way of nourishing his mentees. Alan had the ability to enliven many departmental meetings with his ready, lightning wit.

“In his presence there was an atmosphere of friendly attention to fellow humanity and in his science there was a dislike of rigid thinking because other possibilities might be ignored. In the poem, ‘As time draws near’, the Scottish author and poet Iain Crichton Smith relates that, “It is time to turn the blow lamp on dogma”. This phrase perfectly illustrates Alan’s commitment to maintaining good science.”

Research into abnormal heart rhythms

Professor Williams was the Head of the Department for Cardiac Medicine at Imperial College from 2002. In 2006 he took the decision to move to Cardiff University to join a team already working on the molecular basis of an inherited disease that typically caused abnormal heart rhythms in children.
In his new role as the BHF Sir Thomas Lewis Chair of Cardiovascular Science, Professor Williams’ arrival in Cardiff in 2007 galvanized efforts to understand the mechanisms through which arrhythmia was linked to disruption of calcium signals through ryanodine receptors.

In 2017, a new opportunity arose for Professor Williams and his team to move to Swansea University Medical School to progress this work towards the benefit of patients. With Professor Christopher George, he established the Molecular Cardiology research group that is applying knowledge gained from laboratory studies to improve the clinical treatment of cardiac arrhythmias.

The quality of his science spoke for him

Christopher George, Professor of Molecular Cardiology, worked with Professor Williams for nearly two decades. In describing his friend and colleague, he said: “Alan wore his excellence lightly. He was an unassuming soul. He never sought personal recognition for his achievements, choosing instead to let the quality of his science to speak for him. He was a purist and his career was defined by the relentless “pursuit of the mechanism”.

“His work on the ryanodine receptor will live on, but the community is poorer for his death. Although he would have deplored all the fuss being made about him, even now, it serves as a reflection of just how highly his peers thought of him. We’ll miss him enormously”.

BHF Medical Director, Professor Sir Nilesh Samani said,

“We were very proud to have Alan as a BHF Professor. Apart from being an excellent scientist and mentor, he was an outstanding ambassador for the British Heart Foundation, particularly during his time in Wales. He will be sorely missed not only by his family and friends but also all of us at the BHF and the wider UK cardiovascular research community.

Good humoured, dignified, family man

Alan was a fervent supporter of Millwall FC and in his youth played the game at a high level. His support for the Club continued throughout his life as did his love of football and sport.
Alan was a keen gardener and enjoyed walking the Welsh countryside with his wife Diane. She describes him as ‘a good-humoured, dignified, family man’. He is survived by his wife Diane, their son Tom, daughter Kate and two grandchildren, Eilidh Rose and William.

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