A Giant Among Bugs

Professor Williams' Entomological Legacy

Whether it be in the lecture hall sharing his morass of knowledge on insects, or in the laboratory he developed encouraging and supporting student research, or at his daily afternoon was sporting intellectual dilemmas ranging from international politics to the reproductive habits of gypsy moths, Carroll M. Williams, Busey Professor of Biology, is a Harvard institution. Munching on a supply of hot peppers while sitting in his office, he displays in a distinctive Southern drawl his extensive repertoire of collected facts and stories spanning his 45 years at the University. He recaptures, as if they occurred yesterday, the lives of former students and colleagues, his own research, and most importantly his affection for the current undergraduates for whom his "admiration is boundless."

After graduating in 1937 from the University of Richmond--his home turf--Williams came to Harvard to pursue his doctoral work in entomology, and since then his relationship with Harvard has never wavered. He acquired his Ph.D. for his experimental study of the flight physiology of fruit flies in 1941. Leaning back in his chair and snickering, he remembers that the New Yorker cited his doctoral work "as one of the discoveries of the year that we could have done without."

When World War II broke out. Williams worked part-time performing inactive duty research at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) on surgical techniques. Watching his work, the MGH chief surgeon promptly enrolled Williams in Harvard Medical School. "I'm the only person who never applied," he boasts Williams went to Med School to learn about tropical medicine. As a Junior Prize Fellow from Harvard on leave from the army, he supplemented his Medical School work with major research on the metamorphosis of grant moths. The war ended before the army could make use of his skills, but he finished Med School anyway and received his M D summa cum laude the second person in the history of the Med School to do so. He decided not to continue with medicine because he wanted to do research on a full-time basis at Harvard, and he joined the Faculty as Zoology professor in 1946 and was promoted to tenure in 1948.

His pioneering research in entomology since then has been as diverse as his activities during the war. The American Society of Zoologists' annual meeting in December 1980 was dedicated to Williams and several hundred papers were presented in his honor. Howard A. Schneiderman, a former student of Williams, said in a speech "Carroll's greatest gift is knowing how to select a problem for attack so that exciting results flow from every experiment...His discoveries have played a major role in the modern sciences of developmental biology, biochemistry, and physiology" Schneiderman attended the conference along with hundreds of scientists, most of whom were veterans of the labs or admirers from the scientific community at large. Schneiderman also commented in his speech that "I was conquered, as were my colleagues, and the generations that followed us."

Williams' lab has not only generated significant discourses in several scientific fields, but also the scientists to follow them up. The success stems from the "extremely professional standards we have set. If they don't learn science, they learn how to write and hopefully without exception, both," Williams explains. One of his past "pupils" includes Lynn Riddiford '54, professor of zoology at the University of Washington at Seattle, who organized the symposium. As a junior at Radcliffe, she heard Williams address a pre-medecine forum at which she says she asked him a "silly question." He answered by telling her to go to the lab and try to find the answer herself. And so she did, going on to write her undergraduate thesis under Williams. After completing her doctorate at Cornell, Riddiford returned to Williams' lab as a post-doctorate fellow and then joined the Faculty for seven years. Although she had her own lab. Riddiford said that hers was closely associated to Williams' at they shared an interest in the growth hormone in insects.


Riddiford and other associates of Williams highlight his most important works as discovering the source of hormones controlling insect development, and mapping the first sketch of the insect endocrine system. He also worked extensively with juvenile hormone, identifying the hormone's source, which enabled him to contribute significantly to insect control. His discovery of the "paper factor"--the ability of certain organisms to develop natural defenses against insects--led to the multi-million dollar pesticide industry. His new approaches to insect control were featured a couple of years ago in a Nova program on public television. Williams has also devised surgical techniques in insects, including methods of anesthesia, which "have subsequently come to be used throughout the world in substantially unchanged form," Schneiderman said.

Another former student of Williams', Roger D. Milkman '51, professor of zoology at the University of Iowa, came to work for Williams as a junior at the advice of another professor. He wrote his thesis under Williams, and after dropping out of Med School, joined Williams for graduate work. But Milkman found that his true calling led him away from entomology to genetics and he finished his research with another biologist. All the same, Milkman said he learned a "tremendous amount of biology" from Williams, whom he "regard as one of the greatest influences of my life."

Milkman returned to Harvard in 1966 to spend a sabbatical with Williams, who he says, "has a real feel for organisms at every level of understanding," as well as a "marvelous way of expressing himself." In 1980 at the symposium. Milkman at his session said that Foris Kafatos, professor of Biology, presented a brilliant paper in which he went beyond the time limit. When Kafatos asked Milkman how much longer he could go on. Milkman replied in a completely serious tone, "forever." Williams, overhearing his reply, said in a much louder voice. "Yes, boy, forever." Milkman said Williams was "eating the stuff up and latched on to it," loving every minute of the tribute.

In addition to his verbal expressions Williams is well known as a prolific writer, having churned out more than 200 papers sharing "his profound insights of what is going on in insects." Milkman remarked.

Kafatos is yet another link in the connected chain of excellent scientists generated from Williams' lab. As a graduate student in the early '60s. Kafatos said Williams' lab provided a "stimulating meeting place" in which more and more undergraduates became involved. In his lab. Kafatos added, Williams constantly "established new fields and answers to old questions." With Williams "you could talk about ideas in any subject in the intellectual realm." Kafatos stressed.

Williams has always been enthusiastic about fresh insights and likes sharing them with young people, his colleagues and students stressed Peter T. Cherbas '67, an assistant professor of Biology who got caught in Williams' web after setting up a summer school class taught by Williams and Kafatos. Cherbas got excited about a project and brought it in to Williams who agreed to support him. Spending his junior and senior years in the lab. Cherbas wrote his thesis and then continued his graduate work in the lab Cherbas said Williams provided a stimulating environment for undergraduates to work pursuing independent projects without being treated as technicians.

Cherbas and others agree that this unique opportunity for undergraduates, which has increased markedly in the past 10 years, gives the students the chance to experiment with the idea of being a scientist Currently Williams has the most under graduates in the entire Biology department, and as some speculate, more than all the other divisions combined. By doing extensive research, the students become experts quickly and can participate in discussions and develop their own ideas. Since Riddiford's time in the lab, the ratio of undergraduates to graduates working under Williams' has been reversed. When she was there in the early 50s, she was the only undergraduate included among 20 or so graduates. Currently, more than 20 undergraduates work for Williams while only one graduate student and one post doc are involved.

Williams gives two main reasons for the trend towards more undergraduates. First, the amount of money available for work-study support has increased. Second a report came out 10 years ago which "foresaw the collapse of the Ph.D. market." Williams added that Harvard in "a most astute move moved way ahead of everybody" by cutting back on the number of graduate students.

But extending beyond these reasons. Williams has a commitment to undergraduate education because undergraduates "are an extremely remarkable bunch of people who do so many things simultaneously and do them all well." As a result, Williams has developed a small squadron of undergraduates, led by Lou L. Safranck '74--"my chief deputy" as Williams refers to him--who himself started his association with Williams 12 years ago as a freshman.

Safranek sets up most of the experiments the undergraduates perform, while Williams' provides more of a supportive role. All of the research deals with the tobacco horn worm. Williams most recent area of concentration. Safranek first teachers the students the mundane tasks of cleaning tubes, refilling supplies and of taking care of Williams caterpillar factory--which year round produces mass quantities of all the different stages of caterpillar development. After getting to know the students and their dependability. Safranek provides them with lab projects while teaching them the actual techniques needed to pursue their independent research Depending on the students commitment and often times, luck, the work sometimes leads to a thesis or to significant contribution to Safranek's own research Safranek says Williams "tries to stimulate the students to find answers and to remain on the job" He knows--everyone's projects and at his afternoon teas gets a chance to talk to each student about his work.