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William D. Hamilton 1936-2000

William D. Hamilton


William Donald Hamilton, considered as one of the towering figures of modern biology and the man who helped unify Darwin’s principles, died March 7, 2000, in Oxford, England of malaria contracted on a recent expedition to the Congo, where he was seeking evidence to bolster a radical hypothesis that the AIDS epidemic can be traced to contaminated polio vaccines. Hamilton’s zealous pursuit of this theory was characteristic of his unquenchable intellectual curiosity and interest in ideas others might consider half-baked.

"He believed that if you have a weird idea that sounds wrong at first, you should give it a chance before you throw it out," said Nancy Moran, a biologist at the University of Arizona who studied with Dr. Hamilton.

Recently he suggested that autumn leaves turn brilliant colors not just because of loss of chlorophyll, but, since red and orange are common warning colors in nature, this coloration would warn off insect pests that might lay eggs on the tree, thus preserving the species.

He was a professor at Oxford University since 1984 and forcefully entered the field of evolution as a graduate student at Cambridge University. He published two papers based on his doctoral work that were so seminal to evolutionary biology that almost every contemporary study in that discipline will contain his name and the term, "inclusive fitness," also known as kin selection.

Hamilton was best known for a theory offering a genetic basis for altruism, popularized in two books, The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins and Sociobiology by E.O. Williams.

He was born in 1936 in Cairo, but moved to England as a small child, being educated at Tonbridge School and St. John’s College, Cambridge. He was shy and reclusive, but a risk-taker, physically as well as intellectually; in a teen-age experiment with explosive chemicals he blew off two fingers.

He was a member of the Royal Society of London and the winner of many prizes, including the Darwin Medal, the Linnean Medal and the Drafoord Prize, awarded by the Swedish Academy of Sciences. – Barbara A. Johnston, ABC