By Mira Abed

In 1971, NC State and the then School of Textiles made history when it awarded the first doctorate in fiber and polymer science — the only doctoral degree program of its kind in the United States at that time.

In honor of this year’s anniversary, the first graduate of the college’s doctoral programs, Joel Lawson Williams, met with a recent fiber and polymer science graduate to tell his story.

Joel Lawson Williams was born and raised on a tobacco farm in Duplin County. He was always a curious child and constantly asking questions, but it was a childhood conversation with one of the farm workers that made him consider higher education. When he was about 5 years old he was out in the fields with an old farm worker, Martha Washington, who was herself a daughter of slaves. Her advice has stuck with him to this day. 

“Get yourself an education. That’s one thing they can’t take away from you,” Williams recalls her saying. 

Joel took Martha’s words to heart and decided to go to college at NC State, initially starting out in chemical engineering before ultimately moving to textile chemistry. Throughout his time at university, his early life on the farm stuck with him. 

“You felt like you were starting out behind the plow and you always wondered if you could ever succeed,” Williams says.

During his sophomore year at NC State Joel went looking for a job in quality control – something close to campus where he could use his chemistry education. The job he had set out for was already taken, but he stumbled upon something even better: the beginnings of Research Triangle Park.

Joel started working at the Camille Dreyfus Laboratory as construction was almost complete in 1962 and would continue working there throughout his bachelor’s, master’s and Ph.D. education at the then School of Textiles. ​​He says he did the opposite of what he was taught, always putting work first — not school. While sometimes this put him behind in his coursework, he was in the unique position of doing research at the forefront of his field through his side job. 

Joel was studying polymer science in the 1960s, a decade during which much of the foundational polymer science taught at the Wilson College today was being established. The field was incredibly dynamic, and often Joel knew from his work that the textbooks he was learning from were obsolete. He laughed as he recalled an exam he took during his undergraduate career. He had answered one question correctly based on recent research in the field, but his answer did not match what had been taught in class. 

Joel’s research at the Dreyfus lab continued throughout his education. Indeed, he has never stopped doing research in polymers. This lifelong passion has resulted in over 150 scientific publications and more than 80 patents under Joel’s name, from cotton with increased water absorption to materials which prevent blood clotting for use in biomedical applications. 

Though he eventually moved on to the Becton Dickinson Research Center in Research Triangle Park, and even started his own company in 1997, he has continuously collaborated with students and faculty at NC State and with local companies like Cotton Incorporated. 

He has taught as an adjunct professor at NC State and Duke University in topics related to chemical engineering and biomedical polymers since 1970 and for over 20 years has reviewed grants for the National Institutes of Health (NIH). So where does he find the time to participate in all of this work on top of his full time job? 

“Well, I do sleep,” he says. “But I don’t watch a lot of TV.”

Left: Joel Lawson Williams graduates with his Ph.D. in fiber and polymer science, 1971. Also pictured, Department Head of Textile Chemistry Hank Rutherford.

Middle: Williams at Camille Dreyfus Laboratories in Research Triangle Park, 1962. 

Right: Williams pictured with Dean Vivian Stannett, 1993.

The Wilson College has evolved in the 50 years since Joel Lawson Williams received the first Ph.D. in fiber and polymer science. Between 1974 and 2020, 449 other Ph.D. students have graduated.

The textiles industry has changed significantly in this time, and research in the college has changed with it. 

During Joel Lawson Williams’ time, research in the college was heavily centered on traditional textile manufacturing disciplines, says David Hinks, dean of the Wilson College.

In the mid-twenty-first century, research in the college focused on understanding the science behind common manufacturing processes in textiles. This included yarn spinning, knitting and weaving, and dyeing and finishing. Polymer chemistry was also a significant component, and research into synthetic polymers was intensive during Joel’s time at the college in the 1960s. 

Research in the college became increasingly interdisciplinary as faculty and students in engineering and chemistry collaborated with one another. The Wilson College began to expand to other areas in the textiles industry, such as supply chain and design; those studying textile dyeing and finishing developed techniques to lessen the environmental impact of these processes. 

Medical textiles has blossomed in the last 50 years, though work in this field started in the college even earlier. In 1970, College of Textiles Dean Malcolm Campbell received an artificial aorta implant, a technology which was created by Professor William Shinn at the college during Dean Campbell’s tenure. 

Nonwovens, an emerging technology in the 1950s and 1960s, are now ubiquitous in modern life, from medical and geotextile applications to filtration. Chances are you have become intimately familiar with nonwovens during the COVID-19 pandemic. Surgical masks, as well as the filters included in many cloth masks, are made of nonwovens. In fact, the Nonwovens Institute (NWI) dedicated its scale-up equipment typically used for research to produce specialized filtration fabric for face mask manufacturers during the pandemic.

The NWI is a prime example of the collaboration between industry, faculty and students which Joel is so passionate about, and which Dean Hinks also sees as the future of the Wilson College. Starting as one of the first five National Science Foundation (NSF)-funded State/Industry-University Cooperative Research Centers (State/IUCRC) in 1991, the NWI currently has almost 80 industrial partners and supports over 50 graduate students at NC State. Many of these are Ph.D. students in fiber and polymer science. An example of what Dean Hinks calls “hyper-collaboration,” the NWI is an intimate partnership between academia, government and industry which creates industrially and societally relevant products, research and expertise.

This year’s Wilson College of Textiles bookmark celebrates 50 years of doctoral programs.

Each year since 1960, woven bookmarks have been given out to alumni and other friends of the Wilson College. Melissa Sharp, associate director of Zeis Textiles Extension, won this year’s bookmark contest. Connecting industry partners to the Wilson College to support their business and research needs, Melissa has seen firsthand the life-changing — and lifesaving — innovation and economic impact made possible by textiles. “The diversity of application for the textiles industry combined with the talent and passion of our Ph.D. students has always been a source of inspiration for me,” she says. “The bookmark was a way to showcase the many areas of everyday life that textiles touch upon to improve our quality of life.”