UNM Doctor Bestowed with Highest Honor

October 25, 2004

Contact: Jennifer Riordan: 272-0261 office, 220-0702 cell; Bridgid Isworth: 272-1622


Ralph Williams, M.D., professor emeritus at the University of New Mexico (UNM) School of Medicine Department of Internal Medicine, received the Gold Medal Award from the American College of Rheumatology during the organization's annual meeting in San Antonio, October 18-21.  The lifetime achievement award the highest given by the organization carries a $5,000 prize.

"We are extremely proud that the American College of Rheumatology is recognizing the contributions Dr. Williams has made throughout his career.  At 76, an age when many physicians would be retired, he's still making a difference in the practice of rheumatology and to the health care of New Mexicans across the state," said Paul Roth, M.D., dean of the School of Medicine.

Throughout his career, Williams has authored and co-authored over 500 publications on the causes of rheumatoid arthritis and systemic lups erythematosis.  He has also published six books while at UNM and the University of Florida and has also trained more than 20 physician-scientists who now are serving as division heads at hospitals and medical schools throughout the nation, Europe, South America, Mexico, and Japan.  His mentorship has produced a large group of scientists in the field of Rheumatology.

Presidential Gold Medal candidates' work may involve patient care, research, teaching or administration. The award is supported by an endowed fund created by the past presidents of the ACR and managed by the ACR Research and Education Foundation.

Dr. Williams received his undergraduate degree in 1950 at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. and completed medical school at Cornell University Medical College in New York City. He received his house staff training at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. After two years in the Air Force, Dr. Williams received post-graduate training in Immunology and Rheumatology with

Dr. Henry Kunkel at Rockefeller University in New York City. Following, he accepted his first academic position at the University of Minnesota as Head of Rheumatology where he remained for six years.

In 1969, Williams came to UNM as the second chairman of the Department of Medicine in what was then, a new and developing medical school. Williams served this position until 1988, before accepting an endowed position as the first Marcia Schott Eminent scholar at the University of Florida, Gainesville. In 1998 Williams returned to the UNM School of Medicine as an emeritus professor and has practiced continually within the state of New Mexico since that time.

Williams' scientific contributions began while working in Henry Kunkel's Laboratory at Rockefeller. Initially, he studied cross specificities of human rheumatoid factor and together with Kunkel was the first to describe the appearance and then disappearance of rheumatoid factor in association with successful treatment of subacute bacterial endocarditis.

During his time at Rockefeller, together with his mentor Henry Kunkel and Dr. Mart Mannik, he was the first to describe idiotypes in a landmark paper in Science. About the same time, Professor Jacques Oudin at the Pasteur Institute in Paris, France, also published a paper describing the phenomenon of idiotypes. Several years later, Williams and colleagues showed that monoclonal IgM antibodies with cold agglutinin specificity shared cross-reacting idiotypes or individual unique antigenicity. The concept of idiotypes that each antibody molecule and later T-cell had its own unique personality was later employed by Professor Jerne at the Basel Institute to propose a theory that idiotypes and anti-idiotypes actually might represent a built-in control system for immune reactions. Shortly thereafter, Jerne received the Nobel Prize in Medicine. His theory was mainly based on Kunkel, Mannik and Williams' as well as Oudin's descriptions of the concept of idiotypes.

Williams has made a number of contributions on molecular mimicry between streptococcal antigens and heart or brain components during acute rheumatic fever. More recently he and his colleagues have studied possible molecular mimicry between bacterial antigens and inflamed tissues of ankylosing spondylitis.

Perhaps the most important contributions that Williams has made to rheumatology are the many fellows he has produced who now occupy Division Head positions in five medical centers in the nation and similar positions in many countries outside America including Japan, Venezuela, Italy, Belgium, Mexico Denmark, Sweden and Norway.

In demand for his vast knowledge on the subject of rheumatology, Williams has been invited to speak to thousands of medical students and faculty at Universities all over America and the world.

Williams was elected a Master of the American College of Rheumatology in 1994. The designation of ACR Master is conferred on members (over the age of 65) of high professional competence, ethics, and moral standing who have significantly furthered the art and science of rheumatology.

Williams' commitment to patient care continues also. At age 76, Williams works passionately in the field of rheumatology. Two days a week, Williams sees patients with colleague Fredrica Smith, MD., in Los Alamos, NM.

Since returning to New Mexico six years ago, Williams has especially enjoyed his avocation as a watercolor, pastel and oil landscape artist. Williams is married and has four children.

As the largest integrated healthcare treatment and education complex in the New Mexico, the UNM HSC's vision is to identify and solve the most important questions of human health in New Mexico communities. UNM HSC achieves this through education, patient care, research and partnerships.

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