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Biochemist Virginia Anne Rice Williams helped develop more nutritious grains through her pioneering studies of rice, a major Arkansas crop. She conducted important research on the B-vitamin content of rice, on ways to keep rice from turning rancid in storage, and on the vitamin fortification of rice.
Virginia Rice was born in North Little Rock (Pulaski County) to Roderic J. Rice, a banker, and Mattie Thurman. Her high school teachers urged her to pursue music as a career, as she was a gifted musician. Fearing that she would not succeed as a concert musician, however, she opted for science, a field in which she also excelled.
In 1940, Rice graduated from Hendrix College in Conway (Faulkner County) with a BA in chemistry. She married fellow chemist Hulen B. Williams in 1942. The couple moved to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where Williams enrolled as a graduate student at Louisiana State University (LSU) and her husband became dean of LSU’s College of Chemistry and Physics. She earned a doctorate in biochemistry from LSU in 1947.
Williams remained at the school, dividing her time between teaching and research, for the rest of her life. She helped organize the campus chapter of Iota Sigma Pi, a national honor society for women in chemistry and related fields.
Williams began her research in the early 1940s, studying the effect of milling on rice. At the time, little was known about the cellular function of vitamins in the human diet. During two decades with the Louisiana Agricultural Experiment Station, from 1942 to 1962, she focused her research on enzymes—substances that promote chemical changes within the plants and animals that produce them. Her early studies of enzymes and rice served as the basis for a lifelong interest in the ways humans digest foods.
Williams’s husband recalled that she “had a rare sense of those things that are important and worth doing in research.” He explained that most enzymes have a “key-and-lock type function,” but that this function was not well understood when his wife undertook her research: “It was still to be unraveled, and that’s where Virginia chose to focus.”
Publications gained Williams an international reputation in the field of enzymology. Her work on vitamin B, nutrition, and the metabolism of bacteria led to her 1954 election as the first LSU faculty member to the American Society of Biological Chemists.
In 1955, Williams was one of twenty-eight American scientists awarded grants from the National Science Foundation to attend the Third International Congress of Biochemistry in Brussels, Belgium. A paper she presented there on bacterium cadaveris established her as one of the first scientists to report on the relationship between that enzyme and human metabolism.
Over the next several years, Williams continued her investigation of bacterium cadaveris in hopes of learning how it used proteins and carbohydrates to survive. Her work helped scientists find new ways of controlling the bacteria. In 1967, Williams and her husband co-authored Basic Physical Chemistry for the Life Sciences. The Journal of Chemical Education rated the introductory textbook one of the best in its field.
By 1969, Williams’s work had expanded to the study of histidase and aspartase, enzymes that play a vital role in the ways bacteria, higher plants, and some animals use proteins and carbohydrates. She was awarded a large federal grant to continue this research because a correlation had been discovered between histidase and certain health problems, such as leukemia and liver damage.
Williams published more than sixty scientific papers, many of which contributed to scientists’ understanding of rice’s fundamental chemical composition. She was one of the first scientists to recognize the role that biotin, a water-soluble B-vitamin, played in the synthesis of fatty acids. Her work also led to breakthroughs in the scientific understanding of enzymes. At a time when few women reached the higher ranks of science, Williams won international acclaim for the creativity with which she applied principles of the mathematical and physical sciences to her own field of enzymology.
Williams died on June 16, 1970, from complications following surgery for cancer. The Virginia Rice Williams Library and Classroom Building at LSU, which houses the school’s chemistry library, was named in her honor. Family and friends also established a $1,000 scholarship in her honor, to be awarded annually to a female biochemistry major.
For additional information:Media Services. Louisiana State University. Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
Williams, Nancy A., ed. Arkansas Biography: A Collection of Notable Lives. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2000.
Little Rock, Arkansas
This entry, originally published in Arkansas Biography: A Collection of Notable Lives, appears in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture in an altered form. Arkansas Biography is available from the University of Arkansas Press.
Last Updated 4/8/2011
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