John A. Williams

76th APS President (2003-2004)
John A. Williams
(b. 1941)

John A. Williams is Professor and Chair of the Department of Molecular & Integrative Physiology and Professor of Internal Medicine in the Division of Gastroenterology at the University of Michigan, positions he has held since 1987. Williams was born in 1941 in Des Moines, Iowa and grew up in Ellensburg, Washington where his father was Chair of Social Sciences at Central Washington College of Education. He received a B.S. in 1962 from Central Washington State College and an M.D. (with honors) and Ph.D. in Physiology and Biophysics from the University of Washington in 1968. Williams' Ph.D. thesis was on electrophysiology of the thyroid gland and was done in collaboration with his mentor, Walter J. Woodbury, a pioneer of microelectrode recording.  Williams undertook three different postdoctoral positions: the first was in the Department of Pharmacology at the University of Utah with Dixon Woodbury. The second involved research on thyroid function with Jan Wolff at the NIH where he served as a commissioned officer in the Public Health Service. The third was as a Helen Hay Whitney Fellow in the Department of Pharmacology, Cambridge University, England, where he worked in the laboratory of Keith Matthews on brown adipose tissue and was introduced to the study of exocrine pancreas. Williams began his faculty career in the Department of Physiology at the University of California at San Francisco in 1973 and was promoted to Professor in 1979. In San Francisco Williams also served as Professor of Medicine, Vice-Chair of Physiology, and Co-Director of the Laboratory of Cell Biology at Mount Zion Hospital where he enjoyed a productive collaboration with Ira Goldfine.

Williams' research over the past 30 years has focused on the exocrine pancreas. He began this research because the pancreas was a larger source of homogenous secretory cells than the endocrine glands.  The research rapidly led to studies of the neural and hormonal control of the pancreas as well as continued studies of the intracellular mechanisms controlling exocytosis in this prototypical secretory cell.  Williams' accomplishments included the description of the release of intracellular sequestered Ca2+ as the central control for enzyme release, the original description of distinct peripheral and brain receptors for cholecystokinin (CCK), the definition of the role of CCK as a hormone regulating pancreatic secretion, gall bladder contraction and gastric emptying in humans and animal models, and the role of insulin from pancreatic islets as a regulator of pancreatic exocrine function.  By this time he was considered more a GI than an endocrine physiologist.  More recently his work has defined the complex nature of intracellular signaling pathways in acinar cells, continued to refine understanding of the molecular nature of exocytosis in acinar cells, and defined translational control mechanisms whereby synthesis of pancreatic digestive enzymes are enhanced with each meal.  At the techniques level, Williams developed the isolated acinar preparation which became the primary way to study acinar function in vitro and the first assay to reliably measure plasma CCK as distinct from its close relative, gastrin.  His research has been supported by the NIH since 1973, and led to over 250 original research papers published in different journals including the American Journal of Physiology.  As part of this research, Williams has supervised over 60 postdoctoral fellows, graduate students and undergraduates from around the world.  The academic progress of his students are a source of satisfaction to Williams and many are now active researchers as well as Professors and Departmental Chairs in both basic science and clinical departments.

Williams APS membership began in 1973.  He has served as a member and chair of the Steering Committee for the Gastrointestinal Section, as a member of APS Council, and on the Nominating, Publications, and Long-Range Planning Committees.  In the publications arena he has served for many years on the Editorial Board and six years as Chief Editor of the American Journal of Physiology: Gastrointestinal and Liver Physiology.  He also serves as an Associate Editor of News in Physiological Sciences. Outside APS he is currently a Section Editor for Annual Review of Physiology, served as an Associate Editor for the Journal of Clinical Investigation, and has served on the Editorial Boards of Gastroenterology, Digestion, Regulatory Peptides, Pancreas, and The FASEB Journal.  He has been a Grant Reviewer for NIH, NSF and the Wellcome Trust among others and was a permanent member of the GMA2 and NIDDK-C Study Sections, which review grants and training in digestive diseases and nutrition.  He is an active member of several other academic societies and served on Council and as President of the American Pancreatic Association.

Williams has been the recipient of several awards including membership in Alpha Omega Alpha, the APS GI Section Research Award, the Horace Davenport Lectureship of the APS, and the Ismar Boas Medal of the German Gastroenterological Association.  He was elected as a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1998.

Outside of academic life Williams is a member of the Ann Arbor Friends Meeting and a former Trustee of Friends School in Detroit.  His interests, which he shares with his wife, Christa, include maintaining a historic house, gardening, travel, and outdoor activities such as hiking and river rafting.