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In Memory of Bill Hamilton

Letter for Bill by Steve Stearns

In the spring of 1980 Bill came from Michigan to Portland Oregon to give a talk at Reed College and to make a little expedition into the Cascades to look for insects that live under the bark of old-growth timber. The trip took three days.

Bill bounded about the giant Douglas firs and Sitka spruce with energy and enthusiasm, but he did not find any protosocial woodroaches. We proceeded to a hot spring high in the Cascades east of Eugene. After passing a pool filled with naked University of Oregon undergraduates drinking whiskey and smoking dope, we made our way upstream to a more private pool. It had a hot and a cold intake stream that could be mixed to preference by arranging stones, which we did. Then we stripped and got into the pool. I noticed that Bill's back was covered with scar tissue, and asked him why. There in the pool, steam rising from the water and firs towering high into the grey Oregon sky, naked undergraduates frolicking downstream, he told me how he had played with the explosives that his father had in the garage during World War II to manufacture grenades for the home guard. One blew up in his stomach by accident. He staggered into the kitchen, clutching his belly, and collapsed in a pool of blood on the floor. His mother, who was in the kitchen, was a doctor, and if she had not been, Bill probably would not have survived. She stitched him together as best she could and rushed him into the hospital, where it took him months to recover - 6 months, if I remember correctly. He told me he was 12 when it happened, so the year would have been 1949 or 1950. We very nearly did not have him at all after that.

On the trip we had a total of about memorable 20 hours in the car together, during which we talked at length about his discovery of kin selection and his feelings about his lack of recognition in the UK.

Seven years later Bill attended the meeting in Basel, Switzerland, at which the European Society of Evolutionary Biology was founded. On the Sunday morning after the congress we had a brunch in our garden for all the invited speakers, about 40 people. My wife Bev and I were shuttling in and out of the house to get food and drink on the table in the garden. At the time Bill had a good position in Oxford but did not have enough money to buy a nice house - it was before he got the big prizes in Japan and Sweden. As Bev came up behind him carrying a large watermelon loaded with fruit salad, Bill gazed unknowingly up at our house and said, "You know, if Steve died, there would be an opening in Basel." He barely escaped having the melon, with its juicy salad, being brought down firmly on his head.

I found Bill unfailingly friendly, courteous, and insightful. His encounters with danger started early.As the above anecdote makes clear, he was also direct, honest, and unguarded. He is sorely missed.