William James White, organic chemist and osteologist,
Born 22 April 1944; died 14 November 2010
Bill White, who has died aged 66 from complications after a heart operation, was an expert on human skeletal remains who helped found the Centre for Human Bioarchaeology at the Museum of London and became the inaugural curator of osteology for its Wellcome Osteological Research Database (Word) project. He played a pivotal role in establishing the centre as a benchmark of excellence in the field of bioarchaeology and in bringing to fruition the Wellcome-funded project. The database records details of human remains and disseminates this information though a website.
Bill was born in Harlesden, north-west London, and attended Acton County grammar school. While some of his fellow pupils (Roger Daltrey, Pete Townshend and John Entwistle) formed a world-famous rock band, the Who, Bill went on to study chemistry at Salford University and to enjoy a 30-year career as an organic chemist with the pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline, where he had the satisfaction of seeing many of the drugs he had worked on reach the market.
Initially, his interests in history and archaeology had been hobbies, but after leaving GlaxoSmithKline, he went on to study them more seriously. He gained a diploma in archaeology followed by a post-diploma course in human skeletal remains in archaeology at the University of London, which he said made him realise immediately that this was what he really wanted to do with his life.
In the mid-1980s Bill began a long association with the Museum of London. Working as a freelance osteologist on the medieval skeletons from St Nicholas Shambles, a medieval church in the City, led to the first of his publications, Skeletal Remains from the Cemetery of St Nicholas Shambles (1988). Bill went on to volunteer in the Museum of London's archaeology environmental section. This led to him becoming part of the osteology team at the Museum of London Archaeology Service, with which he participated in a number of excavations.
Bill was involved in numerous projects at the museum, many of international significance. One was the opening in 1999 of the sealed sarcophagus of a Roman woman excavated from Spitalfields market. A short time later, he was part of the team involved in the excavations for the Channel tunnel rail link at St Pancras; his work there will form an integral part of the forthcoming publication St Pancras Burial Ground: At the Site of the New London Terminal of Channel Rail Link, 2002-03.
Bill was also instrumental in the development and success of two important exhibitions based upon the human remains curated by the Museum of London. The first, London Bodies (1998), showcased the "changing shape of Londoners from prehistoric times to the present day" and proved to be one of the most popular exhibitions the museum had shown. The second was an equally successful exhibition held at the Wellcome Trust, Skeletons: London's Buried Bones (2008) that highlighted, through the analysis of skeletons from Roman, medieval and post-medieval periods, the changing face and development of London.
Bill was a member of a number of societies including the Paleopathology Association, the Richard III Society and his local archaeology society. He was also a founder member of the British Association of Biological Anthropology and Osteoarchaeology. He was an active correspondent and commentator in journals and newspapers; notably on the Council for British Archaeology website, where he would frequently demonstrate his vast spectrum of knowledge, from human remains to woolly mammoths. Bill was a fellow of both the Royal Society of Chemists and Society of Antiquaries of London, and contributed to the latter's tercentenary exhibition in 2007.
Bill participated in conferences around the world, presenting papers about his research. His love of archaeology and history, and their often intertwining connections, was evident in his keen interest in the burial of Anne Mowbray, Duchess of York, who was buried in 1481 and reinterred in Westminster Abbey in 1965, and the mystery surrounding the princes in the tower, Edward V and his brother Richard, Duke of York, about which Bill presented his research to the Richard III Society.
During the course of his career, Bill was consulted by, among others, Patricia Cornwell, the crime writer, and the artist Damien Hirst. Bill contributed to the study of the human skull used in the creation of Hirst's 2007 piece For the Love of God, a platinum cast of a skull encrusted with diamonds.
Bill was a quiet man, with a sharp sense of humour, who was deeply respected and loved by all who met and worked with him. His intellect ranged across diverse subjects, from mummification in ancient Egypt to popular music, of which he had an encyclopedic knowledge – he was a big fan of the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band. Such a glorious variety of information was put to devastatingly good use on the BBC quiz-show Eggheads, when he was captain of the Museum of London team which defeated the resident eggheads.
Although he retired from the museum in 2009, Bill became an emeritus curator and remained very much a part of the Centre for Human Bioarchaeology, where his erudition, sincerity, kindness and passion for his vocation were greatly appreciated.
He is survived by his wife, Jenny, whom he married in 1968, and their children William (also known as Bill), Eleanor, Frederick, Roland and Richard, and six granddaughters.