Baylor Mourns Passing of Bill Hillis, M.D., Longtime Professor and Administrator Who Mentored Generations of Prehealth Students

  • Bill Hillis graphic
  • Bill Hillis
    Dr. William D. (Bill) Hillis (Courtesy of Baylor University College of Arts & Sciences)
  • Bill and Argye Hillis
    Drs. William D. (Bill) and Argye Hillis
April 30, 2018

Media Contact: Lori Fogleman, 254-710-6275
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WACO, Texas (April 30, 2018) – Baylor University is mourning the passing of William D. (Bill) Hillis, B.S. ’53, M.D., a medical physician and scientific researcher who served more than 30 years as a professor and administrator at Baylor. Hillis passed away April 26.

Visitation will be held at 10:30 a.m. Wednesday, May 2, followed by funeral services at 11 a.m. at Seventh and James Baptist Church, 602 James Ave., in Waco. Burial will follow at Oakwood Cemetery. In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations to the William and Argye Hillis Scholars in Biomedical Science Program, College of Arts & Sciences, Baylor University, 76798-7344.

“Dr. Bill Hillis will forever be remembered at Baylor as a man of great Christian faith, an extraordinary scholar, teacher and administrator who guided and mentored generations of prehealth and biomedical students to realize their full potential. He also was instrumental in helping introduce the study of medical humanities and ethics at Baylor and was a leader in the understanding of scientific research as a way to illuminate solutions to significant challenges confronting our world,” said Baylor President Linda A. Livingstone, Ph.D. “The prayers of the Baylor Family are with Danny, David and Beth as they celebrate their father’s remarkable life during which he distinctly sought to improve the world through intentional action in research and global service.”

Hillis and his wife of nearly 65 years, Argye Briggs, shared an adventurous life of science, medicine and family, as they traveled across the world, living in Baltimore, Maryland; Copenhagen, Denmark; San Antonio; Covington, Louisiana; St. Johns, Florida; the Congo; Calcutta (Kolkata), India; Waco, Texas; and finally Austin, where Argye passed away in 2017.

Hillis attended his beloved Baylor University, majoring in chemistry, before he completed his medical training at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. He was in the Air Force ROTC program at Baylor and later rose to the rank of Colonel in the Air Force Reserves. Hillis was a virologist, who discovered the first primate model for Hepatitis B, a key to developing an effective vaccine, while raising their children, William Daniel (Danny), David Mark and Argye Elizabeth (Beth), in the Congo during a revolution. He continued his virology career in Calcutta, India, before returning to Johns Hopkins in 1970 to resume his career in clinical medicine. He became a respected nephrologist and epidemiologist, and was the first director of the internationally acclaimed Moore Clinic at Johns Hopkins.

In 1981, they returned to Baylor where Hillis became The Cornelia Marschall Smith Distinguished Professor of Biology. He chaired Baylor’s biology department and later became the University’s executive vice president from 1985 to 1989 and vice president for student life from 1989 to 1998. He was devoted to teaching – he was especially well known for his vertebrate histology and immunology courses – and he led summer programs for Baylor in London and Maastricht, Netherlands.

In 2014, Baylor’s College of Arts & Sciences established the William and Argye Hillis Scholars in Biomedical Science Program, an endowed scholarship program that provides research experiences and enhanced mentoring and learning opportunities for high-achieving undergraduate prehealth students to make them more competitive for positions in top graduate programs and medical schools.

In Waco, Hillis was a member of Seventh and James Baptist Church, where he sang in the choir. In 2012, Argye and Bill moved to Austin to be closer to members of his family, while maintaining their deep friendships in Waco.

Hillis was loved and admired, not only by his wife, his three children and six grandchildren, but also by his many friends, colleagues, and relatives throughout the world:

    “Bill and I sang bass in the Seventh and James Adult Choir, interviewed hundreds of high school students together for acceptance into the Baylor2 Medical Program and numerous junior/senior students for medical/dental study. Devoted to both outstanding teaching – his histology and immunology classes were legendary – and research – he was a lifelong researcher and will long be remembered for establishing the Hillis Scholars Program to facilitate scholarly undergraduate research in biology. Bill lived a life of the highest integrity, sustained an unwavering commitment to his Christian faith and maintained a life of service for the good of humankind.” – David E. Pennington, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus of Chemistry and Master Teacher, Baylor University

    “Dr. Bill Hillis gave up a distinguished medical research career at Johns Hopkins University to become chair of the department of biology at Baylor University in the early 1980s. Through the years Dr. Hillis touched the lives of countless students in the classroom and through mentoring. Some saw this as a sacrifice, but Bill knew it was his calling.”– Lee C. Nordt, Ph.D., dean of the College of Arts & Sciences and professor of geosciences, Baylor University

    “For many years, Drs. Bill and Argye Hillis and our family shared the Thanksgiving holiday together. Bill always led the prayer that called us to order, counting our blessings, one by one. And from there the conversation became a feast, as well. To hear Bill and Jim (Vardaman) discuss issues as we heaped turkey and cranberries on our plates was an honor and is a treasured memory. They spoke of their good fortune to attend Baylor. Then they covered topics from history, to science, to poetry, to opera, to love songs from the 40s and 50s (they still knew all the lyrics and were delighted to test one another’s memory of the words to songs from Broadway shows and classic movies). Their devotion to their students shone out as well as their academic adventures in London and in Maastricht, and in the military. Then and now, I was and am astonished at the depth and breadth of their delight in all aspects of the liberal arts and at their abiding love for their alma mater and for one another. It was a privilege to be at that table.” – Betsy Vardaman, senior lecturer and associate dean for engaged learning in the College of Arts & Sciences, Baylor University

    “It would be impossible to exaggerate the legacy of Dr. Bill Hillis, and we are deeply grieved at his passing. The Medical Humanities Program at Baylor University owes so much to him — he was always a champion of the excellent liberal arts education that Baylor students received on their way to careers in health care. Dr. Hillis’ advocacy on behalf of our program to the DeBakey Foundation has resulted in gifts of well over $1 million to support our students in scholarship and programming. It was always a delight to spend time with Dr. Hillis. His brilliance, his deep faith, his sense of adventure, his sense of humor, his devotion to his family and friends and his love for Baylor shone through every conversation. Dr. Hillis described his mission at Baylor as ‘preparing doctors to go out and live meaningful lives’ and ‘to teach all of them that unto whom much has been given, much would be required.’ We have lost a truly great man. Our only consolation is that his influence and inspiration will continue on in the lives of the generations of Baylor graduates that he served.” – Lauren Barron, M.D., clinical professor and director of the Medical Humanities Program, Baylor University

    “Bill Hillis was a warm and solid friend, a widely acclaimed scholar and a citizen of the world. His teaching was beyond compare.” – William F. Cooper, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus of Philosophy, Baylor University

    “In the spring of my senior year at Baylor, I was taking Dr. Hillis’ immunology class and looking forward to medical school. One day at the end of class, Bill announced that medical recruiters from the Army and Air Force were on campus, and that anyone interested should visit with them. I didn’t give this a second thought and gathered my things to go to my next class. On the way out of the room, Dr. Hillis called me over, put his hand on my shoulder and said, ‘Mark, I really think you should talk to the Air Force recruiter. I had a great time in the Air Force, and I think it would be a good fit for you.’ That was all it took. I visited with the recruiter, and 26 years later, I am a senior physician, flight surgeon and combat hospital commander in the United States Air Force. I literally owe everything I am to my dear friend and dearest mentor; had Bill not made the effort to speak into my life directly, who knows where I would be. I certainly would not be who I was made to be.” – Col. (Dr.) Walter M. “SPARKY” Matthews, M.D., B.A. (Biology) ’92, Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan

    “Dad was as devoted as a parent as he was as a teacher, which is saying a lot. He loved travel, people, discovery and adventure, and passed these attributes on to his children. The fact that Mom and Dad inspired us all to be scientists tells you something about who they were. But our parents were much more than just scientists…they were deeply committed to leaving the world in better shape than they found it, and they instilled that desire in their family, students and friends.” – David Hillis, Ph.D., B.S. (Biology) ’80, professor in the department of integrative biology and The Alfred W. Roark Centennial Professor in Natural Sciences, University of Texas at Austin

    “My Dad was passionate about scientific discovery and generation of new knowledge, but what really drove him and his career was dissemination of knowledge to students and helping people in need.” – Argye Elizabeth (Beth) Hillis, M.D., M.A., professor of neurology, executive vice chair of the department of neurology and director of the cerebrovascular division, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine

    “Although my trips back to Waco have never been as frequent as I would have thought while a student, Bill always opened his door to me and was eager to share updates of both my civilian and military careers. My written letters to Bill always received a personal handwritten response. I do not remember discussing the Air Force with Bill as a student, but I did recall his career when first speaking with a recruiter in medical school. It was not until we met in Austin for dinner that we both realized that my final Air Force assignment in San Antonio was also his final assignment. When planning to attend my 30th Baylor reunion, I contacted Bill and we arranged for a trip to Waco to participate in the Hillis Scholars Program. During the drive from Austin to Waco and back, we had an invaluable opportunity to talk of many aspects of life, a conversation I will always relish. In sum, to me, Bill was a man of deep faith and profound knowledge, but also a man of wisdom and kindness. I will miss his friendship.” – Donald “Keith” Sanford, M.D., B.S. (Biology) ’85, Lt. Col. (Retired), U.S. Air Force Reserve, San Antonio

    ”William Hillis was a true Baylor legend and embodied all the best characteristics of the University. He was an engaged and dynamic teacher who inspired his students to work beyond their boundaries to discover the joy of learning. Bill was a remarkable scholar whose research had a profound impact across the globe and a compassionate Christian who always shared his gifts in the service of others. Thanks to his leadership and love for the students, he left behind a legacy in the William and Argye Hillis Scholars Program that will forever support and inspire the students in our premedical programs. It was a genuine honor to work beside him.” – Rich Sanker, Ph.D., director, Prehealth Science Studies Office, Baylor University

ABOUT BAYLOR UNIVERSITY

Baylor University is a private Christian University and a nationally ranked research institution. The University provides a vibrant campus community for more than 17,000 students by blending interdisciplinary research with an international reputation for educational excellence and a faculty commitment to teaching and scholarship. Chartered in 1845 by the Republic of Texas through the efforts of Baptist pioneers, Baylor is the oldest continually operating University in Texas. Located in Waco, Baylor welcomes students from all 50 states and more than 80 countries to study a broad range of degrees among its 12 nationally recognized academic divisions.

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