Remembering Dr. Willis
William D. Willis, Jr., M.D., Ph.D.
On September 15, 2015, the field of Neuroscience lost a giant and colleagues around the world mourned the passing of a friend, a gentleman and a scholar. After a long and very productive research career, William Darrell “Bill” Willis, Jr MD, PhD, 81, passed away, leaving behind a legacy of trainees and colleagues who were better scientists and better people for having known him.
Bill was an Aggie (Texas A&M University), class of 1956. He received his M.D. degree from the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School in 1960 and his Ph.D. in Physiology from the Australian National University under the direction of Sir John Eccles in 1963. Bill returned to UT Southwestern Medical School as an Assistant Professor of Anatomy in 1963. One year later he became Professor and Chairman of the Anatomy Department at Southwestern. There he authored one of the first textbooks covering the then new field of Neuroscience with co-author Robert Grossman, MD.
Bill came to Galveston, TX in 1970, joining the staff of the Marine Biomedical Institute (MBI). He became the director of MBI in 1978, and Professor and Chairman of the Department of Anatomy & Neurosciences and the Ashbel Smith Professor in 1986. From 1994 until he retired in 2007, he held the Cecil H. and Ida M. Green Chair in Marine Sciences and was the current holder of the Cecil H. and Ida M. Green Distinguished Chair in Neuroscience. He was Professor Emeritus in his beloved department, Neuroscience and Cell Biology at UTMB until he passed.
Professionally, Bill Willis was well known in the field of Neuroscience and a “giant” in the field of Pain Research. He did pioneering work in sensory physiology, mapping and studying pain pathways in the spinal cord and brain. He was also a pioneer in elucidating the process of central sensitization, a phenomenon that underlies many chronic pain states. During his research career, he was elected president of several major scientific societies including the Society for Neuroscience, and The American Pain Society.
His research program was funded by NIH throughout his entire career and he wrote numerous scientific articles, book chapters and text books. His legacy, however, is not what he left in journals and books. It is something infinitely more important yet cannot be graphed or quantified. What Bill leaves behind are trainees, colleagues and friends who are forever changed by their encounters with him. This giant in the field was a humble man who enjoyed talking about any subject with anybody, be it a student and or a Nobel laureate. He never “tooted his own horn”, on the contrary, his interests were to promote and give credit to his students and trainees or colleagues. He was not into the politics of science, but into the people of science, forging friendships, collaborations, and life-long bonds. The many condolences received by Bill’s UTMB colleagues from the scientific community are a testament to this fact. He is remembered as “a wonderful man who shared warmth and kindness to all he met”; “He was so kind and invested so much into so many.”; “He was a bright star in the scientific firmament with both vision and concern for fellow scientists”; “He was truly a wonderful scientist but much more, a wonderful person”; “He was a true Texan – smart and hospitable with a big vision”.
Bill Willis was one of those rare people and even rarer scientists who took the time to invest in people, to use his knowledge and experience to mentor and help many discern their paths in life. He will be truly missed.
The authors would like to thank the many colleagues who offered up very meaningful thoughts about Bill.
Sue Carlton and Jin Mo Chung