Hamilton, William James (1903–75), anatomist, was born 21 July 1903 in Ballytober, Islandmagee, Co. Antrim, to Andrew Hamilton, master mariner, and Emeline Gertrude Hamilton (née Hunter). Educated at QUB, he obtained a B.Sc. in physiology with first-class honours (1926), and later graduated MB, B.Ch., BAO (1929), having won various scholarships and exhibitions, and achieved first-class honours and first place in his final exams. While working as a house officer at the Royal Victoria Hospital, Belfast, he proceeded M.Sc. at QUB (1931), and then left Ireland when he obtained a position as lecturer in anatomy at the University of Glasgow (1931–5). Under the influence of a colleague, Thomas Hastie Bryce, he became passionately interested in embryology and was awarded the Streuthers anatomical prize and gold medal of the University of Glasgow for his research (1932–3), and shortly afterwards the D.Sc. from that university (1934) and fellowship of the Royal Society of Edinburgh (1934).
In 1935 Hamilton moved to London when he was appointed deputy director of anatomy at St Thomas's Hospital medical school. The following year he was made professor of anatomy of the University of London at St Bartholomew's Hospital and was awarded the MD from QUB, receiving a high commendation for his thesis. During his early years as professor of anatomy at St Bartholomew's he used innovative teaching methods, presenting the human body as a dynamic entity in which structure and function were manifestly related. Ensuring that his taught material was clinically relevant, he was instrumental in making surface and radiological anatomy an integral part of pre-clinical medical training. After returning briefly to Glasgow as regius professor of anatomy (1945–7), he went back to London where he was appointed to the newly created professorship at Charing Cross Hospital medical school, and remained there until he retired in 1970. During his office as dean of the medical school (1956–62), his achievements were substantial; over a relatively short period he succeeded in expanding the academic horizons of the school by obtaining chairs in obstetrics and gynaecology, surgery, and medicine, and he was deeply involved in plans for the expansion of the medical school and its eventual move to new premises on Fulham Road. After his retirement he was made emeritus professor (1971) and continued to research and write. He also pursued his interest in new teaching methodologies and became involved in preparing films for teaching embryology.
It was as a researcher that Hamilton gained his reputation. A prolific writer, his numerous scientific papers were chiefly on the subjects of anatomy and embryology and he contributed to many obstetric and anatomical textbooks, several of which went through many editions, including Surface and radiological anatomy (1945). Many of his textbooks were written in conjunction with his close friend and colleague James Dixon Boyd, also from Belfast, and though Hamilton lacked some of Boyd's critical ability his energy and skill in the art of writing books meant that they complemented each other well; their best-known collaboration was Human embryology (1938; many later editions). Hamilton succeeded Boyd as president of the Anatomical Society of Great Britain and Ireland (1953–5) and later served as the society's secretary (1964–7). Elected Fellow of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (1959) and FRCS (1968), his appreciation of the beauty of form and composition made him a natural choice as professor of anatomy at the Royal Academy of Arts, a position he held for nearly twenty years up to his death. He was awarded an honorary D.Sc. from QUB (1968) and also received the Neill prize of the Royal Society of Edinburgh (1938) and the John Hunter medal and triennial prize of the Royal College of Surgeons (1973).
Hamilton had a strong personality and was an able and determined administrator, an innovator and a far-sighted planner. Admired and respected by his peers, his forceful, direct, occasionally abrasive manner rankled with some. Those who knew him and grew to understand his ways held him in high esteem and affection for his simplicity and warmth; to his students he was an approachable and helpful counsellor. He married Maime Young (1933), the only daughter of Samuel Young of Belfast, with whom he had a daughter and four sons; it was a considerable source of pride to him that all his sons became medical men and his daughter a dental pathologist. He died suddenly 3 May 1975 at his home in Northwood, Middlesex, having worked the previous day.