Evan James Williams' character

The following was written by a close female friend of Evan James Williams who cared for him during the time of his final illness. It is given in P M S Blackett's article 'Evan James Williams, 1903-1945', Obituary Notices of the Royal Society 5 (1947), 386-406.

Evan James Williams' character

To have known E J intimately is to hold lasting memories of a colourful and vital personality. Few could have greater zest for living or a keener appreciation that life, on the whole, was good. He was blessed with gaiety of spirit and an endearing youthfulness that belied his intellectual maturity. His humour and sense of the ridiculous were exquisite and so essentially human, for he instinctively identified himself with the ludicrous situations and follies of his fellow-creatures. This capacity for seeing the funny side of things never completely deserted him, even during the darkest days of his illness.

For his close friends E J was a stimulating companion - but not always an easy one and the better one knew him, the more was one subjected to outbursts of Welsh wilfulness and a volatile perversity of mind that could - on personal issues - present and argue a case of sheer unreason with devastating logic. His sense of time was practically non-existent and he had the utmost contempt for the "habit-bound" and would only conform to conventional routine, himself, when absolutely imperative. When absorbed in his work he could forget everything, and it was quite usual for him to work far into the early hours of the morning. Neither was it unusual, when he did eventually relax, to seek distraction by telephoning a sleeping friend at three or four o'clock in the morning, and having awakened his victim would then be overwhelmed by the enormity of his offence.

Matter of fact as he appeared superficially - or tried to - at heart E J was the true Celt with all the emotional and sentimental attributes of his race. His love for his native Wales was profound and family ties were very strong. For his parents he had great admiration as well as affection, and from the beginning of his illness one of his chief concerns was to spare them worry. Until he could no longer avoid it he kept the full facts of his condition from them hoping always that his desperate fight for some measure of reprieve would succeed and that, therefore, he would not need to distress them.

Throughout E J's illness the most painful element was the sense of wanton frustration and waste - his grief for his work was so acute and it would comfort him to know that others could feel this angle of his tragedy in the same proportions as himself and share his grief to the full. There was much he wanted to do, but the little time left was considerably less than he expected and the process of deterioration such that the hoped-for periods of comparative ease never materialised. Thus, apart from a paper which he did for Niels Bohr's Festschrift, during the summer of 1945, a comparatively short summary of his war-work was all that he could achieve - and that at unimaginable cost. This paper was eventually completed after weeks of effort and dogged application. At the best of times E J was slow in putting things on to paper, and he would go over and over his work until his meticulous mind was satisfied. With all that he had to combat, it seemed that he would never finish, but he stuck at it night after night, sitting at the wide open window, sometimes able to work a while and often for long stretches unable to do anything but just gaze out at the trees which filled the view - fighting pain and exhaustion and the nostalgia of the lovely summer evenings, which he knew to be his last. He had an intense love of nature and awareness of beauty - both in sound and sight - and naturally, his appreciation of all that he cared for most was accentuated during the last months of his life. Not long before he died he said he wished he could retain some consciousness after death - if only to hear the sound of the wind in the trees.

From the start of his academic career E J had had to forge his own way and had not been able to afford the time for any but essential study, and he confessed that much had passed him by. Latterly, as his work was reaching a certain fulfilment and the going was easier, his interests were widening. His physical energy was terrific and he had always found time for games - he was a good all-round man, but lawn-tennis was his real favourite and he played an excellent game.

He was extremely fond of London and the period of time he spent at the Admiralty was full of happy associations. He was easy to entertain, for simple pleasures contented him - a walk through one of the parks - preferably St James's, where the antics of the little diving ducks never failed to amuse him - a fairly frequent visit to the cinema and a less frequent one to the theatre - not that he liked it less, but the continuous programme of the cinema was more compatible to his sense of timing.

Generally speaking E J was of a most tolerant and kindly nature - for the under-dog he had a special weakness and sympathy and he liked deliberately hob-nobbing with all and sundry. The quality of kindness in others he rated most high, in fact, his likes and dislikes were based upon it.

It says much for him that despite the concentrated distress of going with him, step by step, through his illness, yet one's most vivid memories are of a cheerful and dynamic presence in whose company there was never a dull moment.

Last Updated July 2022