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Tyleri Tales - Straeon Tyleri

Professor R. Tecwyn Williams

Imagine a world where your doctor can prescribe you a drug that is tailored to your body to provide maximum effect and minimum side effects. That world is getting closer. As we enter the twenty-first century and the human genome project nears its completion, one of the major aims of scientists and physicians is to examine an individual's genetic make-up to determine which specific drugs to use for disease treatment since we metabolise drugs differently. The field is known as pharmacogenetics and should revolutionise patient care in the hopefully near future. As one prominent US scientist recently said, "The outcome of pharmacogenetics research has the potential to improve the health of making the medicines of today and tomorrow safer and more effective for everyone" 

Although the advances in modern molecular biology have proved vital in helping to realise this endeavour, much of the basis for this revolution in medical treatment was established by a young inquisitive man who become the first scientist to really study how drugs are metabolised in a living body. Richard Tecwyn Williams, or RT as he was more often known in the scientific community, was born the first of five children (the others were Martha, Samuel, John, and Emrys) on February 20th 1909 in Abertillery. His parents were from Tan-y-grisiau in north Wales and he grew up speaking Welsh. He loved every thing about Wales and Abertillery and its language and culture were always important to him and his family. His mother was
artistic, able and articulate and it was her influence that persuaded Tecwyn to seek further education and a career as a teacher. As he would say in later life to his children, Wales had three great things - 'Teachers, Preachers and Coal'. His brother Samuel studied science at Exeter University but died in 1936 from TB only 23 years old, soon after obtaining his degree in 1934. His next brother John became a teacher as well as an artist and poet in South Wales and was a member of the Gwent Anthology Society whilst Emrys had a distinguished career as a senior official in the Post Office.

Tecwyn went to Gelli Crug secondary school in Abertillery from where he won a scholarship to the higher grade County School in the town. Although he had previously experimented with elementary chemical sets it was there that he really consolidated his interest and fascination with chemistry. His general scholastic record was excellent and he won the War Memorial Prize awarded for the 'highest academic attainment of the year'. He was also active in sport and like so many fellow countrymen was good at rugby. He won his school colours and was chosen to play for his county fifteen. From Abertillery County School Tecwyn went on to University College, Cardiff to study chemistry and physiology and was awarded his B.Sc. degree in 1928. After this he never went back to Abertillery to live but always visited his parents and sister Martha, who married Charlie Bryant, the newsagent and behind whose house in Powell Street he would climb the mountain to collect wimberries on holidays to Abertillery with his children, Peter, Stephen, Josephine, Maria and Clare from his marriage to Josephine Sullivan in 1937.

In 1931, he published the structure of glucuronic acid in the leading scientific journal, Nature, which stimulated his interest in the metabolism of foreign compounds such as the sulphonamide antibiotics. In particular, the discovery by Gerhard Domagk, who went on to win the Nobel Prize, that the anti-bacterial activity Prontosil, the first real antibiotic, was due to its metabolic conversion in the body to the sulphonamide, spurred great interest in the processes of metabolism and their importance in the fate of drugs and other foreign chemicals.

In 1947, Williams published a book on the detoxication of foreign compounds based on much of his work and that of others and he initiated research into drug metabolism at St. Mary's Hospital Medical School in London in 1949 when he took up the Chair of Biochemistry. Further studies in the 1950s, including work on the metabolism of thalidomide added substantially to this knowledge, and led to the publication in 1959 of an expanded version of "Detoxication Mechanisms", a book described as "a marvel of organisation and enlightenment" (see - Importantly, Williams proposed correctly that foreign compounds were metabolised in two distinct phases.

His academic record was vast with honorary degrees from Paris, Germany, Nigeria and an Honorary D.Sc from Wales in 1976. In 1967, he became a Fellow of the Royal Society. He won the 8th CIBA Medal of the Biochemical Society, UK 1972 and was even an honorary member of The Mark Twain Society USA in 1977. He worked on many committees, both national and international, and it was a sad loss to the scientific world when he passed away after a brave fight with cancer in 1979. After his death, one of his colleagues paid a fulsome tribute declaring him to be "a true scholar" whose great strength was the ability to reduce complex issues to practical simple terms. Tecwyn Williams was truly one of the greatest men ever to have come from the Welsh mining town of Abertillery and his legacy should be a world where drug treatments will be safer and better.

I am very much indebted to Clare Jeffrey (nee Williams), one of Tecwyn Williams' daughters, for her help in compiling this story. For further information on Tecwyn Williams, the following websites, from where information was also drawn, might be of use:



THE FOUNDING FATHER OF DRUG METABOLISM - the story of Professor RT Williams, FRS
THE BLAINA RIOTS OF 1935 - Desperation and  unrest in the Ebbw Fach valley (by Martyn Thomas)
THE MODEST, HARD MAN - Jim Webb, Wales rugby star of the Golden era
THE MAN WHO BOWLED W. G. GRACE FOR A DUCK - Abertillery cricket memories of the 1890s
THE MARIE STOPES CONNECTION - Britain's first-ever hospital birth control clinic opens at Abertillery
THE REDOUBTABLE DAGGARS - A remarkable tale of an extraordinary Abertillery family (by David Daggar)
CAMERA'S GREATEST MAGICIAN - the humble beginnings of Angus McBean

Coming soon:

THE TRAGEDY OF SIX BELLS - the terrible pit disaster of 1960
A CHARITABLE ACCIDENT - Eddie Price, founder of the Tenovus charity
THREE LIONS IN THE SHIRT - Pask, Morgan, and Lewis, stars of the Green & Whites
AHEAD OF HER TIME - The extraordinary story of Beatrice Green


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