Dr. William F. Caveness, 72, chief of the Laboratory of Experimental Neurology at the National Institute of Neurological Diseases and Stroke, one of the National Institutes of Health, since 1969, died of cancer Saturday at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda. He lived in Bethesda.

Dr. Caveness also was serving as project officer of a study on Vietnam head injuries.

He joined NIH in 1965 as associate director of the National Institute of Neurological Diseases and Blindness, then a newly-created position. In that capacity, he was responsible for field research projects on epilepsy and head injuries, development and evaluation of new drugs, and investigation of viruses as a possible cause of chronic neurological disorders such as multiple sclerosis, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig's disease) and some forms of Parkinson's disease.

Born in Zebulon, N. C., Dr. Caveness graduated from the University of North Carolina. He earned a medical degree from McGill University Medical School in Montreal and received additional training in neurophysiology at Harvard Graduate School. After intern and residency training in Montreal, Boston and New York City, he joined the staff of the Neurological Institute at Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center where, except for service in the Korean conflict, he remained for 16 years. He was associate professor of clinical neurology of the College of Physicians and Surgeons at Columbia University until 1965.

Dr. Caveness, who wrote more than 70 publications in his field, also was a research associate at Harvard University and a consultant to the U. S. Naval hospital in Bethesda.

A retired Naval Reserve captain, he served as chief of neurological service at the U. S. Naval Hospital in Yokosuka, Japan, and served aboard hospital ships off Korea during the conflict there.

He held numerous professional memberships and, in 1961, served as president of the American Epilepsy Society. He also served as a representative of the educational and cultural exchange program of the State Department at universities and hospitals in South America.

Survivors include his wife, Angela S., of Bethesda, and his mother, Corinna J. Caveness of Raleigh, N.C.