William C. Phelps, PhD

Senior Vice President, Extramural Discovery Science


“I am continually impressed by the creativity and passion of the young investigators that we are privileged to work with for extramural cancer research around the US.  More than just hope, it gives me confidence that our future with cancer will be far better because of the discoveries they will make and innovative solutions they will create.”

At ACS since 2004

I am the Senior Vice President for Extramural Discovery Sciences for the American Cancer Society (ACS).  Along with a very talented staff, I’m responsible for awarding approximately $100M in new grants annually and the stewardship of a $400M portfolio of active research grants.

Using the ACS’s highly regarded rigorous, independent, and nationally competitive peer review process, we identify the most innovative research projects and most creative investigators across the United States with a primary focus on scientists and clinician-scientists early in their careers.  The work of these top investigators advances our knowledge and ability to prevent, detect, and treat all cancers and ensure optimal quality of life for cancer survivors.

Research focus and accomplishments

Prior to coming to the Society, my career was focused on research with my hands, on many wonderful collaborators, and on staff that worked in labs I directed.  First at the National Cancer Institute (NCI) as a postdoctoral fellow and for a number of subsequent years, in pharmaceutical industry research. 

My primary focus was human papillomaviruses (HPVs), during a time when few people had even heard of the virus. Earlier observational epidemiological studies had strongly associated HPVs with cervical cancer. That set the stage for the experimental studies that started in the 1980s to confirm that the viruses (HPV16 and HPV18) were the primary cause of cervical cancer and to begin to study “how” these viruses caused cancer in humans.

As many scientists experience, it was being at the right place, at the right time, surrounded by the right colleagues that enabled my own small contributions to our understanding of HPVs. It is very gratifying to see that today – 30 years later, due to the work of brilliant colleagues in the HPV field, we are able to effectively prevent HPV-associated cancers through vaccination.

Following my primary research career, I took on various leadership roles in the pharmaceutical industry and at the ACS.  In these roles, my job has been to steer or enable the work of others (which was often akin to herding cats through rooms filled with rocking chairs) and celebrate their success.


Work before ACS

  • GlaxoSmithKline, Inc., Head, Department of Virology
  • Glaxo Wellcome, Inc., Head, Antiviral Discovery
  • Burroughs Wellcome Co., Senior Scientist
  • National Cancer Institute, Laboratory of Tumor Virus Biology, Postdoctoral Fellow


  • PhD: Microbiology, University of Minnesota, in 1985
  • MS: Botany, Virginia Polytechnic Institute,  1980
  • BS: Biology, Rhodes College, 1977

Personal life 

I live in Avondale Estates, Georgia, with my wife, Judy.  We have two grown children and two grandchildren.