UCL Division of Biosciences


W H James (10th August 1927 – 28th April 2022)

6 June 2022

It is with great sadness that I report the death of Bill James, a stalwart of Department of Genetics and Biometry when it was located in Wolfson House north of the Euston Road. Bill joined the Department in the late 1960s as a statistician working alongside Professor Cedric Smith

W H James

Bill worked on family size, birth order and twinning, before finding what was to become his main scientific passion in life, the association of the sex ratio with hormonal production in male and female parents. Bill’s hypothesis was that the proportion of girls was to a small degree increased by higher levels of maternal gonadotrophin and progesterone concentration at the time of conception. Like a dog with a bone, Bill found an unusually diverse set of studies to support his hypothesis, linking the sex ratio to the cycle day of insemination, coital rate, gestation duration, diet, genetics, a multitudinous array of infections and disease states, exposure to pollutants, sexual orientation and even the occupation of the parents. There was almost nothing Bill couldn’t turn his statistical mind to, ferreting out information from published papers through extensive library searches (well-before Google and the www), reeling off publications with a lifetime output of 500 (peak rate 30 in 1998). With a bit of prodding, Bill also endeavoured to integrate his mechanistic findings with the evolutionary predictions of the famous Trivers-Willard hypothesis which linked sex bias in offspring to fitness advantage. Although perplexed, he in the end came to see these two approaches as in some degree of harmony in his final publication last year. He leaves a magnificent distillation of ideas and data for the future and for others to verify experimentally.


I knew Bill from the 1990s, as one of many somewhat eccentric figures populating the Department. Often appearing in a moth-eaten deer stalker hat and bicycle clips, he’d drop by to pick up his voluminous mail (Bill was a great correspondent). He was always on for a jousting about “James-nonsense” as I pushed him to consider the forces that had to have operated on the evolution of the sex ratio and he reposted with mechanistic detail to keep me firmly in my place. Bill had an enormous care for his science and an ever-curious mind, whilst being an unrelenting advocate of his intellectual position. A great combination, all delivered with an impish smile.

Obituary by Professor Andrew Pomiankowski
Director Division of Biosciences