William Warner Sleator Jr.
William Warner Sleator Jr., known to his friends and family as Bill, was born in Ann Arbor, Michigan on April 5, 1917. He died at Carle Hospital on December 23 after a fire at his house in Urbana. He had been disabled for several years and was alone in the house when the fire started.
His father, William Warner Sleator Sr. (1883–1956), was a professor of physics at the University of Michigan. His mother, Lucy Caroline Bishop (1885–1971), was the daughter of Ann Arbor farmers and landowners, and studied at Wellesley College.
Bill was the eldest of four children. He was predeceased by his brothers David and Frederick, and is survived by his sister Mary, of Urbana, wife of Nicholas Temperley. When the Sleator family spent a year in Munich, Germany in 1927–8, Bill had experiences that foreshadowed two of his great loves: he explored the Deutsches Museum of science and technology, and he began taking violin lessons.
During World War II Sleator worked at the proving grounds in Aberdeen, Maryland, and then returned to the University of Michigan to complete a Ph.D. in physics in 1946. He first taught at the University of Minnesota, then at Washington University, St. Louis, where he shifted to physiology, focusing his research on the electrophysiology of heart muscle. While there he also collaborated with William H. Masters and Virginia E. Johnson in pioneering research on human sexuality.
In 1969 he moved to Urbana to head the Department of Physiology and Biophysics at the University of Illinois, a position he held until 1976. During his tenure he was able to hire in a fashion that maintained the biophysical flavor of the department, while also building a foundation for the upsurge of cell biology that took off in the late 1970s. In the words of one of those hires, Professor Eric Jakobsson, “Bill was a pioneer in the turn of the entire field of physiology in a more mathematical and physics-based direction. He was one of the first to elucidate how drugs and hormones altered the electrical and mechanical properties of heart muscle, laying a sound foundation for later developments in cardiac pharmacology.”
Professor Colin Wraight, who was also brought to the department by Sleator, says that Bill’s strongest intellectual interest was in the mechanisms that linked electrical stimulation to muscle contraction. "In a series of publications he reported the responses of heart tissue to diverse action potential patterns, and the influence of various pharmacological agents (including caffeine) on these behaviors.”
Sleator was married in 1940 to Esther Kaplan (1915–96), a medical doctor who carried out research at the Child Research Center at the University of Illinois and also worked as a physician at the Frances Nelson clinic. They had four children. William Warner Sleator III (1945–2011) became a well-known writer of science fiction and other books for children and teenagers; the best known are “Interstellar Pig” and "House of Stairs." His 1993 book “Oddballs" is a highly entertaining memoir of his family, in which his father figures prominently as a positive and stimulating force. Lucy Victoria (1946–2003), Sleator's only daughter, was a registered nurse, and was married to David Wald, who survives; their children are Julia and Spencer.
Sleator had two sons who survived him. Daniel (born 1953) is a professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, and has two sons, Nico and Leon. Tycho (born 1955) is a professor of physics at New York University, married to Marina Cords, and has a daughter, Clio, and a son, Isaac.
Sleator is remembered by his children as actively encouraging their learning through unusual experiences. For example, he drove his children blindfolded to unfamiliar parts of town, letting them find their way home on their own. He helped his younger sons build a Van de Graff generator and a chemical engine in the basement. He also instilled in them a love of nature, finding scenic swimming, floating, and picnicking sites for family outings.
Bill and Esther liked entertaining. The relaxed and lively parties at their house in Urbana brought together scientists, musicians, medical professionals, artists, neighbors, old and new friends. Sleator was a man of unusually broad interests, which he was happy to share with his family, colleagues, and friends. He could talk with knowledge on diverse scientific subjects. He was an enthusiast for classical music, particularly string quartets, and played the viola, taking his part in a local amateur quartet for many years. He passed on his musical talent to several of his children and grandchildren. He also enjoyed travel and the outdoor life; he and his wife visited Europe, India, Japan, Australia, and the Caribbean. He took many walking tours in national parks and in scenic areas closer to home. He enjoyed camping, canoeing and scuba diving. He supported many worthy causes, most notably the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and the Sierra Club.
In his last days Bill was reading and discussing “Why Does the World Exist? An Existentialist Detective Story,” by Jim Holt.