T. Franklin Williams, M.D., the second director of the National Institute on Aging, died on November 25, 2011, at his home in Rochester, New York. He would have been 90 years old on November 26. Dr. Williams is credited with bringing to aging research a perspective that sought to distinguish the effects of aging from those of preventable or treatable health conditions that affect older people.
Dr. Williams was named NIA Director in July 1983, a position he held until 1991. Prior to his appointment, Dr. Williams was a professor of preventive, family, and rehabilitative medicine at the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry. He served as the hospital’s medical director from 1968 until 1983, and spearheaded the development of the university’s geriatrics program. Dr. Williams returned to Rochester following his retirement from NIA, where he continued as a scholar, teacher and attending physician. In 1995, he was appointed Distinguished Physician at the Canandaigua, N.Y., Veterans Administration Medical Center. From 1992 through 2002, he also served as scientific director of the American Federation for Aging Research.
“Frank Williams was an outstanding geriatrician, researcher, and administrator who was inspired by the possibilities of advanced age,” said NIA Director Richard J. Hodes, M.D. “He wanted to know how it was possible to achieve and maintain high functioning, good health, and a sharp mind well into late life. He achieved this ideal for himself and worked hard to achieve it for many others. He will be greatly missed.”
During Dr. Williams’ tenure at NIA, the institute established a number of groundbreaking programs, including the Alzheimer's Disease Centers, where researchers focus on basic through clinical studies; the Federal Forum on Aging-Related Statistics, an organization of more than 35 federal agencies that collect and analyze data on older people; and the Alzheimer’s Disease Education and Referral (ADEAR) Center, which conducts outreach and provides information about Alzheimer's disease to health professionals, patients and their families, and the general public. Under Dr. Williams’ leadership, the institute began the longitudinal Health and Retirement Study, which examines how older adults’ health interacts with social, economic, and psychological factors. He also established the Geriatric Research and Training Centers, later renamed the Claude D. Pepper Older American Independence Centers, charged with conducting research on diseases and conditions that threaten independent living.
“Frank’s strong vision and leadership for NIA came from his deep appreciation of aging as an essential and valued part of life,” said Evan Hadley, M.D., director of NIA’s Division of Geriatrics and Clinical Gerontology. “He often cautioned against references to the “elderly” as a group inherently different from those of us who haven’t yet reached old age. In particular, he rejected common assumptions that older persons are inherently sicker or less capable.”
Dr. Williams is survived by his wife of almost 60 years, the former Catharine Carter Catlett, a medical social worker who joined Dr. Williams on his trips around the world, gathering information on models of approaches to aging and working to implement new approaches in this country. He is also survived by two children, Mary Wright Williams Montague and Thomas Nelson Williams, four grandchildren, and two step-grandchildren.