In Memoriam: Dr. William Geoffrey Town

Dr. William Geoffrey Town, March 31, 1943 to June 24, 2019

Our dear friend Bill Town passed away suddenly, of a cardiac arrest, on June 24, 2019, at the age of 76. Bill was the son of William Henry Town and Amy Town (née Morton). He grew up in Dagenham, Essex, U.K. He obtained a B.Sc. in chemistry from the University of Birmingham in 1964, and a Ph.D. from the University of Lancaster in 1967. His specialism was crystallography. Later, when he founded his own company, he achieved accreditation from the Chartered Association of Certified Accountants.

In 1967, Bill moved to Sheffield University, where he conducted research on chemical structure searching systems, as part of the pre-eminent research group led by Michael Lynch. In 1968, he moved to the University of Cambridge, where he worked under Olga Kennard in the Cambridge Crystallographic Data Centre, another world-leading group. He was an author on one of the first publications about the Cambridge Structural Database (Kennard, O.; Watson, D. G.; Town, W. G. Cambridge Crystallographic Data Centre. I. Bibliographic file. J. Chem. Doc. 1972, 12 (1), 14-19). CINF members will be interested to hear that Bill was attached to the school of librarianship.

In 1971, Bill moved to Ispra, in Italy, to work for the European Community Joint Research Centre. The family settled on the shores of Lake Maggiore, with views across the lake and the Alps in the distance (Bill loved sunshine), but they also had an apartment across the border in Switzerland. Bill became fluent in Italian: I loved to hear him speak this most musical of languages, but he also spoke French well, he spoke more German than I do, and later in life he also took up Spanish. Bill also got interested in skiing during his years in Italy.

At the Joint Research Centre, Bill led a team building the Environmental Chemical Data and Information Network (ECDIN). The team was also involved in the preparation of the European Inventory of Existing Commercial Chemical Substances (EINECS), which was to be published in seven languages. Bill was always an environmental crusader, but even more so in his seventies when he unfortunately developed chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. He was passionate about trying to reduce air pollution in London.

In 1983, the family returned to the United Kingdom, where Bill and his colleague David Proctor set up Hampden Data Services Ltd. (HDS). The HDS years were the height of Bill’s career. It was at HDS that STN Express was developed, and I had the pleasure of leading one of the key industrial teams (at ICI Pharmaceuticals) driving its development. The HDS chemical structure system, PSIDOM, was one of the first chemical structure editors, and an early way of building personal chemical structure databases and using structure entry as a front end to online searching systems.

In 1991, Bill relinquished his interest in Hampden Data Services (which still survives as a part of Chemical Abstracts Service), and founded William Town Associates, which he ran briefly, before joining Derwent Information (later Thomson Corporation) from 1992 to 1997, as Business Development Manager, Scientific Information. In 1997, he became Managing Director at ChemWeb, (later owned by Elsevier), and some readers may remember the Boston tea party reception that ChemWeb sponsored at a Boston ACS meeting. In 2002, Bill set up Kilmorie Consulting. This would later become Kilmorie Clarke, after he met Maggie Clarke and they decided to combine their businesses.

Bill was also a visiting professor in the Department of Information Studies at the University of Sheffield until 2006, and he was Chair of the Board of Governors at the Cambridge Crystallographic Data Centre, where his career had started. He was a member of the American Chemical Society for over 30 years, and he regularly attended ACS national meetings. He was a member of the CINF Publications Committee from 1993-1996, and chaired the Awards Committee from 2002-2005, and the Nominating Committee in 2001. He served the division as Chair-Elect in 1999, Chair in 2000, and Past-Chair in 2001, and was an alternate councilor from 2006-2008. He was the recipient of the 2008 CINF Meritorious Service Award.

Svetla Baykoucheva reports that Bill played an important role in the transition of the Chemical Information Bulletin (CIB) from print to digital. In 2009, he became chair of the CINF Publications Committee, and Svetla was editor of CIB. They organized the digitization of all print issues of the Bulletin, from its inception in 1949 to summer 2010. Bill secured a grant from ACS to pay for the scanning and the maintenance of the archive. He negotiated the price and conditions for access to the archive with the University of North Texas.

In the mid-1980s, Bill was secretary to what is now the RSC Chemical Information and Computer Applications Group. He and Ian Tarr did all the organizational work involved in setting up the Chemical Structure Association Trust (CSA Trust), and Bill was a signatory to the Declaration of Trust on December 5, 1988. Bill was the first chairman (sic) of the trust.

Many people have spoken about the time and effort Bill put in helping to mentor them, providing them with his quiet influence, which helped them grow with the confidence to progress at the start of their careers. He was a great friend to many in this respect, and was always ready to help, and listen, particularly over a good meal and some fine wine and coffee. He was always full of new ideas and was constantly thinking of new things to do and pushing things in new directions.

In an interview that he gave to the CINF Chemical Information Bulletin (https://acscinf.org/content/career-chemistry-and-chemical-information) in 2009, Bill talked about his passion for exotic travels. He was always keen on travel, and, at the age of only 15, he cycled all the way from London to Cornwall. While at Cambridge he attended a conference in Moscow and drove there with a friend in a hastily purchased and unreliable minivan, at a time when the cold war was in full swing and traveling behind the iron curtain was ill-advised. In 1999, he became an eclipse chaser after witnessing his first total solar eclipse in France. His love of the moment steered him to visit new and interesting places, including Botswana, Spain, Libya, Siberia, and Easter Island, to view more total eclipses. On a trip to Zimbabwe and Zambia, his canoe overturned and pitched him into the Zambezi on the first day, very shortly after he had sighted crocodiles. In 2007, he also toured Thailand and Cambodia, this time not chasing eclipses.

In later life, Bill became a political activist. He became a founding member of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) in 1981. Coincidentally, the announcement of the formation of the SDP was at St. Ermine’s Hotel in London, where large numbers of us were gathered for a major conference on chemical nomenclature. Bill followed the evolution of the SDP into the Liberal Democrats, as they are today. He was a passionate European and was committed to the European Union. He became a pivotal part of the Lewisham Liberal Democrats, and gave a lot of his time to serving on committees and helping to deliver leaflets, man stalls or help with IT issues. In 2013, he even stood as a Liberal Democrat candidate for one ward. He was a keen marcher and took part in the many rallies and marches against Brexit. One of Bill’s happiest moments was the recent Lib Dem victories in the European elections, in areas which had never previously voted Lib Dem.

I knew Bill for more than forty years. We missed our first opportunity to meet in Sheffield in 1968, when he would have tutored me on a course on computer handling of chemical structural information. For some reason I did not attend; maybe the course was over-subscribed. So, we first met, briefly, at a Chemical Notation Association conference in Kent in 1979. Our friendship blossomed after we both walked at the same time into the lobby of a hotel in Columbus, Ohio, in April 1982. Bill had come from Italy to visit Chemical Abstracts Service (CAS) on EINECS business, and, coincidentally, I was being given a tour of CAS on the same day. Our CAS hosts arranged for us to have lunch together.

Bill spoke about EINECS at the Fall 1982 ACS National Meeting in Kansas City, and I persuaded him to organize a symposium on EINECS at the fall meeting the next year, in Washington, DC. It was there that Bill showed me pictures of the house he was buying in Oxfordshire, England, and told me about the founding of HDS. That company played a big part of both our lives for the next eight years. During this period, Bill and I were also co-organizers of the first international chemical structures meeting, held in Noordwijkerhout in 1987. I reviewed Derwent CD ROMs when Bill worked for Derwent, and, from 1997 until 2002, I had a contract writing for ChemWeb.com. Space and time will not allow me to list all the projects we worked on together.

Bill was a very big part of my life for over 30 years. He was a source of business inspiration, a confidante who could be trusted with my secrets, an advisor when big decisions had to be made, and a shoulder to cry on when things were not going well. He was one of the cleverest people I knew. He was always able to stay calm, and do exactly the right thing in times of crisis. I loved to hear his voice.

As his son Matthew said, Bill was a gentleman, a scholar, modest, kind, sensitive, level-headed, quietly knowledgeable, always willing to help, a good man. Dear Bill, may you rest in peace. We offer our sincere sympathies to Maggie, Bill’s wife; to Anne, his first wife, and their children Helen, Matthew, and Amy; to his sister Pat Bollens; and to his grandchildren, Joe, Ella, Emi, Tom and Casper.

Wendy Warr
October 30, 2019