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General physiologists


("Bill") A. Catterall, Ph.D.


On February 28, 2024, the scientific community lost a giant in the field of ion channels. William (Bill) A. Catterall passed away in the Philippines while at a scientific conference on calcium channels. He was 77.

Since his passing, there have been a slew of articles summarizing Bill’s many accomplishments in science. These include laying the biochemical framework for understanding that the “action potential Na+ ionophore” and “calcium antagonist receptor” corresponded to bona fide proteins later to be known as the voltage-gated NaV Na+ channel and CaV Ca2+ channel, respectively. He pioneered methods to label these channels with toxins, drugs, and antibodies, unveiling a wealth of insights about their composition as multi-subunit complexes, their regulation by phosphorylation, and their localization in various tissues. With the cDNAs encoding these channels and patch clamp electrophysiology in hand, he moved the ion channel field into the structure/function era—identifying regions of NaV and CaV channels that are responsible for their intrinsic biophysical properties, modulation by hormones/neurotransmitters, and regulation by clinically important drugs such as anti-arrhythmics, anti-convulsants, and local anesthetics. Utilizing insights gained from the structure/function studies, he probed the functions of these channels in physiological contexts in neurons and cardiac myocytes, as well as the dysfunction of these channels in diseases like epilepsy, autism, and heart failure. For his seminal contributions in science, Bill was elected to the National Academy of Sciences USA and the Royal Society London and received prestigious awards including the Gairdner Award from Canada, the Robert R. Ruffolo Career Achievement Award in Pharmacology from the American Society of Pharmacology and Therapeutics, and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the International Union of Pharmacologists.

No article about Bill would be complete without mention of his rapid rise in academia and his formidable contributions as a figurehead outside of his lab. After completing a BS in Chemistry from Brown University in 1968, he obtained his PhD in Physiological Chemistry from Johns Hopkins University 4 years later. At NIH, he was promoted to a Staff Scientist position after a 2-year postdoc with Marshall Nirenberg and was recruited as a tenured Associate Professor by Edwin Krebs to the University of Washington (UW) in 1977. Three years later, Bill became full professor and then went on to serve as the chair of the Department of Pharmacology for more than 3 decades (1983-2016). During this time, he recruited outstanding faculty and solidified the reputation of the department as a destination for neuropharmacology and cell signaling research, ranking consistently among the top 10 pharmacology departments in the U.S. Bill’s sphere of influence went well beyond the department at UW. He was a trusted advisor to the leadership at UW and helped launch the undergraduate major in neurobiology in the College of Arts and Sciences. Outside of UW, Bill served the scientific community at the highest levels including on the advisory boards for the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and Pasteur Institute.

Some remembrances of Bill might also touch on his impressive record of recruiting and mentoring the scientists (>100) that were the boots on the ground in his lab. His former trainees populate academia and industry in the U.S. and abroad, and many have launched highly impactful research programs that originated from projects and strategies developed while in Bill’s lab. He demanded a lot of his trainees while they were in his lab, and his expectations in this context are the stuff of legends. What is less evident from outside is the community that Bill created inside the doors of the “Catterall Lab,” which occupied various regions of the UW Health Sciences Building for nearly 50 years. One unifying principle was the intensity of the science within Bill’s highly organized framework. Bill held monthly thematic group meetings (e.g., for Na channels, Ca channels), and there was often a mad rush in the late evening hours to finalize experimental findings before disclosing them to Bill and the rest of the group. These meetings were affectionately referred to as “bumps”, which some interpreted as akin to having our results “bumped” from us like high salt on an affinity column (others preferred the analogy of a speed bump that interrupted the flow of work). Those working on high priority projects would be bumped more often—at the coffee cart, walking up the stairs… among other places.

 While Bill was fiercely competitive in science, my experience as a postdoc in his lab was that he did not foster this competition between lab members. He had a knack for recruiting people that melded together scientifically and socially and forging this comradery in and out of the lab. There were outings involving Bill’s favorite pastimes (e.g., hiking, camping, skiing, and sailing). There were parties hosted by Bill at his home to celebrate holidays and the parting of a lab member for a new position. There were weddings, birthdays, baby showers, and reunions every decade where past and present lab members mingled over science, bratwurst, and home-brews. There were the occasional sad events where the lab came together to support a lab member in a difficult time. Relationships that began in the lab became scientific collaborations, friendships, and sometimes marriages that lasted long after leaving Seattle. Building this community was, as one former lab member called it, the “secret sauce” that enabled the prodigious scientific output of Bill’s lab.

I’d like to think that Bill was aware of the importance of this secret sauce and continued to refine the recipe as people and projects came and went, and as he himself evolved over the years. Bill will always be revered for the breadth of his contributions to our understanding of Na+ and Ca2+ channels and his administrative leadership. He should also be remembered as a mentor who laid the groundwork for so many to succeed, united by memories of the thrill and hardships of discovery and the human connections that make them worthwhile.

written by
Amy Lee (postdoctoral fellow in the Catterall Lab 1997-2001)
Folkers Chair in Interdisciplinary Biomedical Research
Department of Neuroscience
The University of Texas at Austin

  Frederick Sachs, Ph.D.
  Distinguished Professor
  University at Buffalo
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  David A. Brown, FRS
  Emeritus Professor
  University College London

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  David A. Gadsby, Ph.D.
  Professor Emeritus
  Rockefeller University
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  Joseph Frederick Hoffman, Ph.D.
  Professor Emeritus of Cellular and Molecular Physiology
  Yale School of Medicine
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  Louis J. De Felice, Ph.D.
  Professor of Physiology & Biophysics
  Virginia Commonwealth University 

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  Roger Tsien, Ph.D.
Nobel Laureate 2008
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  Andrew G. Szent-Györgyi, M.D.
  Professor Emeritus at Brandeis
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  Philip B. Dunham, Ph.D.
  Emeritus Professor of Biology at Syracuse University
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  Tomuo Hoshiko, Ph.D.
  Professor Emeritus Case Western Reserve University
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