William D. Willis, Honorary Member and Former Councilor, Has Died

Sep 30, 2015

After a long and very productive research career, William Darrell “Bill” Willis, MD, PhD, passed away on September 15 at the age of 81, leaving behind a legacy of trainees and colleagues who were better scientists and better people for having known him.

Bill was well known in the field of neuroscience and highly influential in the field of pain research. He conducted 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. 

WillisWilliamDuring his research career, Bill was elected president of several major scientific societies including the Society for Neuroscience and the American Pain Society. He was a long-time member of IASP, attending every meeting and contributing at least 12 articles to the Proceedings of the World Congress on Pain and 28 peer-reviewed publications to PAIN. He served as a Council member from 1984 to 1990 and in recognition of his outstanding contributions to advance the association’s mission was named an Honorary Member of IASP.

Funded by the National Institutes of Health throughout his career, Bill wrote numerous scientific articles, book chapters, and textbooks. 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 he leaves behind are trainees, colleagues, and friends who are forever changed by their encounters with him. Bill was a humble man who enjoyed talking about any subject with anybody, be it a student or a Nobel laureate. He was not into the politics of science but into the people of science, forging friendships, collaborations, and life-long bonds.

Bill graduated from Texas A&M University in 1956. He received his medical degree from the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School in 1960 and his PhD 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 coauthored one of the first textbooks covering the then-new field of neuroscience with Robert Grossman, MD. 

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.

-- Jin Mo Chung, PhD, is professor and chairman of the Department of Neuroscience and Cell Biology in the University of Texas Medical Branch, Galveston, Tex. Susan M. Carlton, PhD, is a professor in that department.