Developer of First Effective Treatment for Hepatitis B

William S. Robinson

September 2023

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Bill Robinson, ’89, PhD ’95, MD ’96, remembers the high school summer he spent catching ground squirrels on campus. His father, a Stanford infectious disease specialist and his namesake, had discovered they carried a liver virus similar to the virus that causes hepatitis B, so he tasked his son with bringing the rodents to the lab for research.

Portrait of William RobinsonPhoto: Courtesy Robinson Family

“In my father’s world, being an academic scientist was the ultimate,” says Robinson, today a professor of medicine and a rheumatologist at Stanford. “He instilled in me the gratification of performing experiments to try and find answers to unanswered questions—the importance of making a difference.”

The senior William S. Robinson, an emeritus professor of medicine and a pioneer of hepatitis B research that led to treatments for the disease, died of congestive heart failure in San Mateo on March 19. He was 89.

“He was a great role model both as a scientist and a physician,” says Harry Greenberg, an emeritus professor of medicine who worked in Robinson’s lab as a student in 1974. “He was also a great outdoorsman.” Among the peaks that Robinson scaled were Denali in Alaska and Gangapurna in Nepal.

According to Bill, Robinson had a passion for hiking the Sierras and a disdain for tents. On many backpacking trips, he ended up strapping on all three of his exhausted sons’ gear and carrying it to their next camp.

“He was a big guy physically and seemed formal, but he wasn’t,” says Thomas Merigan, an emeritus professor of medicine.

Born in Indiana, Robinson graduated from Indiana University and attended medical school at the University of Chicago. In 1967, Merigan, chief of the infectious disease division in the department of medicine at Stanford, asked Robinson to join him.

“He was interested in understanding new viruses, and my major interest was in antivirals,” Merigan says. “Together, we had a good time.”

Robinson’s contributions to hepatitis B research began in the early 1970s. Using electron photography, scientists had discovered what they thought might be the virus that caused the disease, which can lead to liver cancer or cirrhosis. Robinson used an ultracentrifuge to spin samples of infected blood, concentrating the virus, and then uncovered the enzymatic reactions that confirmed the scientists’ suspicion.

Together with Merigan, who had access to the antiviral protein interferon, and Greenberg, who was treating hepatitis B patients, Robinson established interferon as the first effective treatment for the disease. In 1976, the trio published an article in the New England Journal of Medicine about their success in treating an initial set of patients.

“What we did was show how interferon blocked the growth [of the virus], the disease was lessened, and the liver improved,” Merigan says. “It took another 20 years before there was any drug equal to interferon to suppressing the infection.”

In addition to Bill, Robinson is survived by his wife, Keting Chu; children Allen, Thomas, and Sophie; five grandchildren; and his sister, Jean.

Tracie White is a senior writer at Stanford. Email her at traciew@stanford.edu.

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