Williams, David Rudyard

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David Rudyard Williams


Research scientist, professor of sociology and public health

Born into working-class poverty in a colonized society, David Williams observed the effects of racial and economic oppression from an early age. With the support of his family and his deeply held religious beliefs, he not only grew to believe in his ideas and abilities, but he also determined to live a life of service to others. Travelling far away from the tiny island that had been his home, Williams worked hard to gain an advanced education and employment at prestigious universities. More importantly, he stayed true to his youthful goal of service and has devoted his life to improving the health of society's most vulnerable members. In the process, he has become one of the foremost experts on the health issues of racial minorities and the poor.

David Rudyard Williams was born on June 12, 1954, on the westernmost Caribbean island of Aruba. His father, William R. Williams, had come to Aruba from his home on another Caribbean island, St. Lucia, as a member of a British army regiment during World War II. He had stayed to work in the island's oil refineries. While working on Aruba he met and married his wife, Zenobia, and together they began a family. David was the fourth of their five children. While he was still a child, the family moved back to St. Lucia, and David grew to consider that island his home.

Raised in Working-Class Family

Twenty-seven miles long and fourteen miles wide, St. Lucia is a small tropical island in the eastern Caribbean chain of islands called the Lesser Antilles. Once colonized by both the Dutch and the French, it was a British possession when the Williams family moved there during the late 1950s. Life in the beautiful tropics was not easy for a working-class black family. William and Zenobia were resourceful, however, and both worked at many different jobs as the need arose. William had various jobs, as a book salesman, a factory supervisor, a construction foreman, and an office clerk, before starting his own business as a customs agent, helping importers and exporters fill out papers and pay fees on their products. Zenobia took care of the children and the small family farm which helped feed them. She also worked periodically, both as an elementary school teacher and as a maid for the island's wealthy white families.

The children, too, contributed to the family by doing the constant chores that arise on a rural homestead. Williams milked cows and delivered milk to the neighbors who bought it. He also took care of the sheep, turkeys, and chickens that contributed to the family income or its dinner table. As he got older, he joined his brothers and sisters working at his father's customs business. There was not much extra cash, but the Williams children earned spending money by collecting coconuts from the trees on their property and selling them for five cents apiece.

When not occupied with chores or playing with his sisters and brothers, Williams developed a love of reading. Since television did not come to the island until almost 1970, he relied on the radio and books for entertainment and news of the outside world. During the 1960s and early 1970s, he closely followed the exciting developments of the civil rights and black power movements in the nearby United States. Some of the major figures in these movements were closely tied to the Caribbean, such as Stokely Carmichael, who had been born in Trinidad, and Malcolm X, whose mother had been a West Indian immigrant. At the same time, the people of St. Lucia were beginning to demand independence from Britain. To a boy living in an island nation that was fighting its way out of colonialism, the ideas and passion of the U.S. civil rights movement were fascinating and inspiring. The ideas of social justice he absorbed during his youth would be important to him throughout his life and career.

Williams graduated from St. Lucia Adventist Academy in 1971. Neither of his parents had finished high school, but they encouraged their children to seek higher education. Though he never felt pressured to achieve, Williams expected that he would follow his older siblings to college, and he entered Caribbean Union College in Trinidad. He majored in theology, the study of religion. Religion and spirituality had long been important to Williams, who had been raised in the Seventh-day Adventist faith, an international Protestant denomination which has almost thirteen million members throughout the world.

Founded during the mid-1800s in New England, Adventists are Christians who hold the belief that Jesus Christ will return to earth, not on some distant, unforeseeable day, but in the near future. Adventists celebrate their sabbath or holy day of rest on Saturday, rather than Sunday as most other Christian denominations do. They place great value on independent thinking, personal freedom, and healthy living habits, such as a wholesome diet. Caffeine, alcohol, meat, and tobacco are all prohibited by Adventism, and many studies have shown that Adventists tend to be healthier because of the lifestyle their religion demands. Though Adventists look to a joyous future in heaven, they also have a strong belief in serving humankind while on Earth, much as they believe Jesus did. Growing up in the Adventist church, Williams learned to value personal health and community service, and his education reinforced those values.

At a Glance

Born David Rudyard Williams on June 12, 1954, in Aruba; married Opal Reid on June 7, 1981; children: Delia, Alysia. Education: Caribbean Union College, BTh, theology, 1976; Andrews University, MDiv, 1979; Loma Linda University, MPH, 1981; University of Michigan, MA, sociology, 1984, PhD, sociology, 1986. Religion: Seventh-Day Adventist.

Career: Yale University, Department of Sociology, director of undergraduate studies, 1989-90; Yale University, assistant professor of sociology and public health, 1986-91; Yale University, associate professor of sociology, 1991-92; Yale School of Medicine, associate professor of public health, 1991-1992; U of M, associate professor of sociology and associate research scientist, 1992-98; U of M, African American Mental Health Research Center, faculty associate, 1992; U of M, Center for Afro-American and African Studies, faculty associate1992; U of M, professor of sociology and senior research scientist, 1998; U of M, Survey Research Center, Research Center on Religion, Race, and Health, co-director, 1999; U of M, Harold W. Cruse collegiate professor of sociology, 2002; U of M, Institute for Social Research, professor, 2004; U of M, Center for Afroamerican and African Studies, South Africa Initiative Office, director, 2004; U of M, professor of epidemiology, 2004.

Selected memberships: American Sociological Association; American Public Health Association; Association of Black Sociologists; Caribbean Studies Association;

Selected awards : Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Investigator Award in Health Policy Research, 1995-96; U of M, Harold R. Johnson Diversity Award, 1998; National Academy of Sciences, Institute of Medicine, elected member, 2001; Decade of Behavior Research Award, 2004.

Addresses: Office University of Michigan, Institute for Social Research, 426 Thompson Street, Room 2230, Ann Arbor, MI 48106-1248.

Continued Education in the
United States

After his graduation from Caribbean Union in 1976, Williams decided to take a big risk to further his education. He had heard stories from other Caribbean students that by working in a sales job in Canada, one could make enough money to enter college in the United States. In the summer of 1976, he went to Toronto, carrying only a few personal possessions and $50 that his father had given him for graduation. He did earn enough money working there to enter graduate school at Andrews University, an Adventist college in Berrien Springs, Michigan, to further his religious studies and pursue his masters degree in divinity.

It was while studying divinity that Williams began to feel that to be of real use to the world, his service had to be both practical and meaningful. The Adventist focus on health led him to the conviction that through helping people become healthier, he could truly make the world a better place. He felt that by working in the field of public health, he could help the most vulnerable members of society, the poor and people of color who were often overlooked by the health care system. He continued his education at Loma Linda University in Southern California, where he earned another masters degree, this time in public health.

While working on his degree at Loma Linda, he was required to do a semester of supervised work in the field of public health. He went back to Michigan in 1980 to do his fieldwork at the Battle Creek Adventist Hospital. The Adventist Hospital in Battle Creek had once been under the supervision of the famous John Harvey Kellogg, an Adventist doctor who had worked to improve the community's health during the nineteenth century. Kellogg is probably best remembered for inventing such healthy breakfast alternatives as granola and corn flakes.

Began Work in Public Health

At the hospital, Williams got his first practical experience in involving the black community in its own health care. Though the hospital's Battle Creek neighborhood had become largely African American, the staff and patients at the hospital had remained predominantly white. Williams' goal became to make sure that African-American people were included in hospital health programs. He soon realized that simply offering classes and clinics at the hospital would not be enough to accomplish this. When few blacks showed up at a hypertension, or high blood pressure, clinic at the hospital, Williams and his co-workers took the clinic to the local African-American church, where they were able to educate many more blacks about the dangers of high blood pressure in their community.

As Williams worked with the black community in Battle Creek, he began to understand that simply providing health information was not enough; many factors contributed to an individual's ability to make use of public health programs, such as family and community support and access to money and leisure time. He began to feel that the stresses of living with racism and poverty had a direct effect on the health of people in poor and minority communities. He wanted to research these effects further, and this research would take him into the field of sociology.

Studied Minority Health Issues

Williams continued to work in Battle Creek until the fall of 1982, when he entered the University of Michigan to seek his Ph.D. in sociology. In 1986, after earning another masters and his doctorate, he received a job offer to teach sociology at Yale University, a prestigious college in Connecticut. He taught at Yale for six years, then returned to the University of Michigan to teach both sociology and public health.

Though he has continued to teach, becoming a full professor in both of his fields, Williams has also continued to research the various social influences on health, especially the effects of poverty and racism on the health of the poor. He has become a tireless spokesperson for the most vulnerable members of American society, pointing out over and over in articles and speeches that in the world's wealthiest nation, the poor are still becoming increasingly less healthy than the rich, and exploring the reasons behind this fact. As a diligent research scientist, he has supported his ideas with many thorough research studies on the health issues of poor people of color. Through this work, Williams has become a highly regarded member of the scientific community. He has written over a hundred papers and is a member of the board of five scientific journals, as well as dozens of other boards, task forces, and professional organizations. He continues to see his work as part of his service to society and his pursuit of social justice.

Selected writings

"Health Issues in the Black Community," Contemporary Sociology, Vol. 22, No. 5, September 1993, pp. 746-48.

(With M.S.Spencer and J.S.Jackson) "Race, Stress and Physical Health: The Role of Group Identity," Self and Identity: Fundamental Issues, edited by R. J. Contrada and R. D. Ashmore, Oxford University Press, 1999, pp. 71-100.

(With Toni D. Rucker) "Understanding and Addressing Racial Disparities in Health Care," Health Care Financing Review, Vol. 21, No. 4, Summer 2000, pp. 75-95.

"Discrimination and Health," in Encyclopedia of Health and Behavior, Vol. 1, edited by N.B. Anderson, Sage Publications, 2004, pp. 254-59.

"Racism and Health," in Closing the Gap: Improving the Health of Minority Elders in the New Millennium, edited by Keith E.Whitfield, Gerontological Society of America, 2004, pp. 69-80.



Detroit Free Press, July 23, 2004.


"David R. Williams on the Influence of Socioeconomic Status, Race and Geography on Health," Inequality.org,www.inequality.org/williamstranscript.pdf (December 14, 2004).

"David Williams," John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Research Network on Socioeconomic Status and Health, www.macses.ucsf.edu/Network/david.htm (December 14, 2004).

"Seventh-Day Adventists: The Heritage Continues," Seventh-Day Adventist, www.adventist.org/world_church/facts_and_figures/history/index.html.en (December 14, 2004).


Information for this profile was obtained through an interview with David R.Williams on December 14, 2004.

Tina Gianoulis

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