Remembering William S. Robinson

November 24, 1933–March 19, 2023

May 2, 2023

William (Bill) Sidney Robinson, MD, Professor Emeritus of Medicine at Stanford

“My father showed me what working science is and how real science is done. He brought me into his Stanford research laboratory to work as a high school student. He studied the role of hepatitis B virus. My job in the lab was to trap and collect blood from wild ground squirrels on the Stanford campus that he had discovered carried a liver virus similar to hepatitis B virus, a virus he termed was a member of the HEPADNA family. My experiences in my father’s laboratory showed me how research is done, what it is to do real work, and it sparked my interest in research that determined my life’s work. My father taught me that when there is a question without an answer, design an experiment and carry it out to get an answer.

My father gave me the greatest gift a father can give a son: he showed me how to lead a happy and productive life, through both the example of his life and through his guidance, teaching, and support.”

Bill Robinson, MD, PhD (son)

Professor of Medicine
Division of Immunology & Rheumatology
Department of Medicine
Stanford University

“Bill visited the lab of my postdoc mentor, Tom Edgington, during the early months of my training. He taught me how to isolate hepatitis B virus (HBV) particles from the blood of infected patients and how to detect them in the isolates. That knowledge made it possible for me to begin to study the effect of HBV on the immune response in infected patients, effectively launching my life-long career. Bill was supportive thereafter whenever I needed his advice, and he never asked for anything in return. He was a role model for me for the rest of my career as he was for many others as well. I will always be grateful to him.”

Frank Chisari, MD

Professor Emeritus
Department of Immunology & Microbiology
The Scripps Research Institute

“In the 1960s I brought Bill, who I had met at a Cold Springs Harbor course on animal viruses, to my division because he was a well-trained molecular biologist who wanted to teach and practice clinical medicine. His subsequent studies of the seminal biochemical growth of hepatitis B virus allowed the development of therapies, safe vaccines, and understanding of pathogenesis of that virus. It also guided the subsequent world approach to another difficult-to-culture epidemic pathogen: Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV).

He not only proved to be a warm and insightful colleague but a very able triple-threat scientist.”

Thomas C. Merigan, MD

Former Chief of Infectious Diseases
Professor Emeritus, Academic Council
Division of Infectious Diseases, Department of Medicine
Stanford University

“When I was a medical student at Stanford working in the lab of Tom Merigan, I attended a recruitment seminar by Bill who was working at UC Berkeley. He presented his research with Peter Duesberg, describing the segmented genome of influenza virus, which I found remarkably exciting.

After the talk, Tom asked me what I thought. I am sure the decision to recruit Bill had nothing to do with my opinion; however, I ended up publishing my first paper as a medical student in 1970 with Bill as senior author.

It was such a pleasure working with him. Besides learning so much about molecular virology, we spoke about books and politics among other things. Which reminds me, Bill put up bail for one of my co-medical students who was arrested at a Vietnam war protest in San Francisco.”

Douglas D. Richman, MD

Distinguished Professor of Pathology & Medicine (Active Emeritus)
Director, The HIV Institute
Co-Director, San Diego Center for AIDS Research
Florence Seeley Riford Emeritus Chair in AIDS Research
University of California, San Diego

“I came to Stanford after a three-year biochemistry postdoc at The Rockefeller University in Manhattan. During that time I locked my stethoscope away and joined the PhDs in the lab doing protein structure function studies. To be honest, when I came to Stanford I was more than a little bit concerned that it would not be possible to continue such studies in a clinical division. I set out to learn more by meeting individually with each of the Infectious Diseases division faculty members at the time. I remember with utter clarity my first meeting with Bill in his lab in the S corridor. He was then in his 40s. Over the next two hours he took me through all the studies Tom beautifully summarized. Their significance and originality were clear; equally so the passion in the work; equally so how much hard work and persistence it took to achieve those results. From that experience I learned the following: Bill was a very fine and original scientist; and he achieved that in a clinical division while taking his turn as an attending.”

Gary K. Schoolnik, MD

Former Chief of Infectious Diseases
Professor Emeritus, Academic Council
Division of Infectious Diseases, Department of Medicine
Stanford University

“I only spent one year working with Bill Robinson and Tom Merigan but that year changed my life. 

After completing a two-year tour of duty in the U.S. Public Health Service at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), I needed to get back to my clinical training in internal medicine and planned to focus on the subspecialty of gastroenterology and hepatology (GI). My wife and I decided that we should spend the two years of GI training in the Bay Area since we were likely to spend the rest of our lives in the Northeast, where we grew up. In the summer of 1974, I was lucky enough to get a postdoctoral fellowship appointment at Stanford University in the GI division. In those days, clinical fellowships were generally two years: one in full time clinical training and the second in combined clinical and research activities. 

Since I had done a little research on viral hepatitis in medical school and the lab I had worked in at the NIH had big programs in respiratory, enteric and liver viral infections, working with Bill Robinson seemed like a good place to do my second year of research for the fellowship. Little did I know that Bill and Tom had already been thinking and planning to undertake some first in human clinical research studies of human leukocyte origin interferon and its effects on chronic Hepatitis B Virus (HBV) infection. I fit in well with this team since I took care of a variety of chronic HBV infected people in my clinic. 

Well, the rest is history, as they say. Initially, we treated a total of three subjects with several courses of parenterally delivered interferon and followed the course of their infection using a recently developed quantitative serum HBV polymerases assay from Bill’s lab. Amazingly, the infusions of interferon were each followed by dramatic reductions (or in one case disappearance) of HBV markers. This was a very exciting finding and one of the first demonstrations of the potential effectiveness of interferon to treat chronic viral infection in humans. It was such an exciting and satisfying experience for me that I entirely changed my life plans and decided to focus on research and specifically viral infections for my entire career. 

Bill’s (and Tom’s) example of what a career in science was like was just so exciting and satisfying that I knew I wanted to emulate it. Now, almost 50 years later, I remain grateful for their example, their mentorship and their friendship.”

Harry B. Greenberg, MD

Joseph D. Grant Professor of Medicine and Microbiology & Immunology
Associate Dean for Research, Office of the Dean
School of Medicine
Stanford University

Aleem Siddiqui, PhD

Professor, Medicine
Division of Infectious Diseases, Department of Medicine
University of California, San Diego

“Bill was my hero. He was a mentor extraordinaire and most of all a great life-long friend.

In the darkest of the times in my life, I got a call to join his laboratory. So, I drove all the way from Colorado in my convertible MGB to Palo Alto, California. That was the beginning of my career.

He sent me to Stan Cohen’s laboratory to clone hepatitus B virus (HBV) DNA from patients’ sera. HBV research at that time was all clinical. Bill’s most seminal contribution to HBV research is that he brought HBV research to the experimental platform. By doing the initial molecular characterization of the HBV DNA, including its isolation and molecular cloning, Bill, and his collaborators at Stan Cohen’s laboratory, paved the way for the growth of molecular biology, which has flourished for decades to this day.

Hundreds of people’s carriers were benefited by studying the various aspects of this viral life-cycle and liver disease pathogenesis.

Bill possessed a gentle soul, always with a positive attitude and great mentor to all who came to join his laboratory including a long list of clinical ID fellows, postdoctoral fellows, and students. Bill was a stalwart of molecular virology.

I will miss him forever. Today with his passing we are now poorer.”

“His work on HBV was the first really serious molecular biological approach to HBV, defining its byzantine genomic structure, identifying the polymerase centrally involved in its replication, and characterizing the genome's covalent linkage to protein—and soon thereafter, the cloning of the genome.

All of this happened when I was just a medical student and a resident, but it convinced me that, using molecular biology as a lever, the life cycle of HBV could be understood in molecular terms even though there was not yet a cell culture system for its propagation.

In that way, all of us who got into the field back in the 80s—myself, Jesse Summers, Bill Mason, Heinz Schaller, Bill Rutter, Pierre Tiollais, and many many more—are all his heirs.”

Don Ganem, MD

CEO & CSO of Via Nova Therapeutics
Professor Emeritus, Microbiology & Immunology
University of California, San Francisco

William S. Robinson in a Stanford lab in 1974, around the time his lab clones the hepatitis B virus (HBV).