University of Rochester

David Williams Named Allyn Professor of Medical Optics

November 19, 1997

David Williams, an expert on the visual systems of humans and other animals, has been named the William G. Allyn Professor of Medical Optics at the University of Rochester.

Williams studies how our eyes gather light and transmit impulses to the brain, and how the brain interprets those impulses so we can see. His research focuses on the retina, the screen inside the eye that converts light into electrical impulses. Williams and his team have taken the sharpest photographs yet of the living human retina, enabling scientists to see for the first time in the living eye the individual cells called cones -- the photoreceptors that allow us to detect color and see clearly in bright light. He also took the first measurements of the spacing and diameter of the cones and rods in the living human eye, and produced the first color images to distinguish the three types of cones.

The work has allowed scientists to see the inside of the human eye better than ever before and eventually could help physicians better diagnose and treat eye diseases such as macular degeneration and retinitis pigmentosa, two leading causes of blindness. This technology may also help to develop custom-made contact lenses that would correct for vision defects left uncorrected by current lenses.

In addition to his research, Williams teaches popular courses on sensation and perception, including one where students spend a whole semester studying visual systems of many types of animals. He has also helped organize special optics days where Rochester-area educators learn more about optics and bring that knowledge back to area students.

Williams, who joined the University in 1981, directs the University's Center for Visual Science, one of the world's leading centers for the study of vision. He is also a member of the faculty in the departments of brain and cognitive sciences, optics, and ophthalmology.

He is a fellow of the Optical Society of America and was honored by the American Psychological Association in 1986 for his significant contributions to psychology early in his career. He is a 1997-98 Guggenheim fellow, and is on sabbatical this year at the University of Washington studying the neural circuitry that underlies color vision.

A graduate of Denison University in Ohio, Williams received his Ph.D. from the University of California at San Diego in 1979. He did postdoctoral research at Bell Laboratories before joining the University. His work is supported by the National Eye Institute and has also received funding from the U.S. Air Force.

Williams is the first faculty member to serve as the William G. Allyn Professor, a post named for a 1934 graduate of the University's Institute of Optics who went on to become second president of Welch Allyn, Inc. Allyn's father founded the firm in 1915 as a manufacturer of hand-held, directly illuminated ophthalmoscopes. The company, based in Skaneateles Falls, N.Y., has since grown into the world's largest manufacturer of hand-held medical diagnostic instruments, with plants and distribution centers on four continents. Its products, such as bar-code scanners and other data-collection devices, halogen and miniature high-intensity discharge arc lamps, and video, medical, and industrial flexible endoscopes, are sold in nearly every nation.

The Allyn chair, which brings together the University's historic strengths in optics and medicine, was endowed by a 1993 gift from the company to mark Allyn's 85th birthday.