Born in 1938 in Ohio, Robert Williamson was brought up in New York and London. He obtained his B.Sc. in chemistry in 1959 and his M.Sc. (1960) and Ph.D. (1963) in biochemistry from the University College, London. He spent the following 13 years teaching at the University of Glasgow, where he studied the control of gene expression in mammalian chromatin, and led molecular genetics at the Scottish Cancer Research Institute. He also spent one year as a Senior Research Fellow at the Department of Embryology in Carnegie Institute in Washington. In 1976, he was appointed to the Chair of Biochemistry at St. Mary’s Hospital Medical School in London.
Professor Williamson is an international authority in the field of human molecular genetics and its applications in medicine. His discovery that alpha thalassemia was caused by a single gene deletion was the first demonstration of an inherited disease at the DNA level. This work was instrumental to subsequent discoveries and potential cure of hereditary disorders caused by single gene dysfunctions. It was followed by the cloning of the human globin genes by Williamson and his group, and thereafter by their establishment of the first DNA linkage for Duchenne muscular dystrophy, then that of Friedreich ataxia and other conditions. Williamson and his group were also the first to develop a probe for cystic fibrosis which could be employed for screening this disease on a community basis. This concept is now universally applied. They also demonstrated the existence of a gene mutation in the familial type of Alzheimer’s disease. Williamson also examined some polygenetic diseases such as “early onset coronary heart disease” where a number of defined loci probably determine most of the pathology associated with this condition.
Professor Williamson’s outstanding contributions to the fields of molecular and medical genetics were published in hundreds of scientific papers and presented in a large number of invited and honorary lectures in major universities and research centers in Europe and the USA. He is an elected Fellow of the Royal Society (London), the Royal Colleges of Physicians of London, Edinburgh and Australia, the Royal College of Pathologists, the European Organization for Molecular Biology, the British and Australian Academies of Science, the Academy of Medical Sciences, the Imperial College and the Australian Academy for Clinical Chemistry.
In addition to the King Faisal International Prize for Medicine, he received several other prizes, as well as an Honorary Doctorate Degree in Medicine from the University of Turku in Finland.
In 1995, he moved to Australia as a Professor of Preventive Medicine and a Professor of Medical Genetics at Melbourne University. He is the Director of Murdoch Children Research Institute in Melbourne, Australia, and a founding member of the European Human Genome Organization.
Professor Robert Williamson, has been awarded the prize, in recognition of the considerable impact his highly original works have had on the development of human molecular genetics and their applications in medicine. His discovery of the genetic defect in Thalassemia (A) has been instrumental to subsequent discoveries and potential cure of other diseases caused by single gene dysfunctions.