Mendel Medal 2019 – Professor William G. Hill

Photograph : Anne-Katrin Purkiss

The Genetics Society is delighted to announce that Professor William G. Hill, University of Edinburgh, has accepted the 2019 Mendel Medal, awarded by president, Professor Laurence Hurst.

Bill Hill is one of the world’s leading quantitative geneticists, with a distinguished research career spanning 40 years, focused on the variability in complex traits arising from the joint effects of genetic and environmental factors.  Raised on a Hertfordshire farm (that the family still owns), Bill came into genetics via an interest in livestock improvement.  After studying Agriculture at Wye College London and Genetics at UC Davis, Bill moved to Edinburgh to undertake a PhD in quantitative and population genetics with Alan Robertson.  Apart from occasional periods abroad to work with his many collaborators, he has stayed in Edinburgh since, building on the historical strength in quantitative genetics developed by Douglas Falconer, Alan Robertson and others.

Bill’s research is primarily theoretical, using mathematical and computer models of the behaviour of genes in populations to understand the genetic basis of quantitatively varying traits.  His contributions have included studies of how genetic variation is maintained in natural populations, and how selection (both natural and artificial) changes the structure of genetic variation.  He has made numerous very influential advances in our understanding of the effects of finite population size and mutation on variability and selection responses, notably the role of mutation in maintaining continued responses to selection.  In addition to his purely scientific work, he has made many important contributions to the application of genetics to animal improvement, which have had a major impact on the livestock breeding industry.  He is a sought-after consultant by both public agencies and private businesses in this area.

Of especial importance has been his work on linkage disequilibrium, the non-random associations between genetic variants at different sites in the genome.  Such associations now provide an immensely important tool for geneticists seeking to map and identify genes involved in disease and other complex traits, and Bill’s work provided a basic framework for modelling and analysing linkage disequilibrium, which he went on to apply to genetic mapping.  As a PhD student with Alan Robertson, Bill demonstrated how selection acting at a locus interferes with that happening simultaneously at linked loci.  The Hill-Robertson effect has become one of the most influential ideas in population genetics, finding a new lease of life in its ability to explain patterns of molecular evolution and diversity revealed by the genomic revolution.  Within recent years, his work has helped to shape our understanding of what genome-scale data sets can tell us about complex traits and relatedness within populations.

Bill has served with distinction in several important academic administrative posts, culminating in the position of Dean of the Faculty of Science and Engineering at the University of Edinburgh until his official retirement in 2002.  He continues to be highly active in the fields of quantitative genetics and animal breeding and has inspired many generations of scientists through his teaching and supervision.  He was elected to the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1979, the Royal Society of London in 1985 and appointed OBE in 2004, in part for his contribution to the UK animal breeding industry. Bill has been an honorary member of the Genetics Society for many years, and fittingly, will present his lecture at the “A Century of Genetics” conference to be held November 2019, Edinburgh.

Editors note:
Bill become unwell in 2019 and although he attended the Century of Genetics Conference, Trudy Mackay delivered a talk about his work, and included many memories from colleagues that the Society compiled into a downloadable booklet.  Bill sadly died at the end of 2021, and a tribute from colleagues and friends can be read here.