William A. Catterall (1946-2024)

William A Catterall (1946-2024)

pioneer, educator, mentor, and leader

Excellence and leadership were defining characteristics of University of Washington Neurobiologist William (Bill) A. Catterall who died at age 77 on February 28, 2024. Born and raised in Providence Rhode Island, Bill graduated from Brown University in 1968 with a BA in chemistry and from Johns Hopkins University in 1972 with a PhD in physiological chemistry. He joined the department of Pharmacology at the University of Washington School of Medicine in 1977 and continued to be actively engaged in research until his death. His contributions to modern pharmacology, leadership impact at UW, and the legacy of his trainees are incalculable. He is survived by his wife Tina, son Douglas and daughter Elizabeth.

First and foremost, Bill was an exceptional scientist. He pioneered the biochemical investigation of calcium and sodium ion channels; molecular portals that allow the controlled passage of ions across cell membranes. The proper passage of ions into the cell is essential for healthy brain, heart, and muscle function. Early work from Catterall elucidated the molecular basis of ion channel gating whereas later studies with UW Pharmacology colleague Dr. Ning Zheng revealed details of how these clinically relevant macromolecular machines operate at the atomic level. With this latter information, Catterall was able to ascertain how a variety of toxins as well as local anesthetics and antiarrhythmic drugs act to “lock the gate” on these ion channels. Bill was recognized for these pivotal discoveries by election to the National Academy of Sciences USA and the Royal Society London. He also 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.

Bill’s administrative accolades were as formidable as his research prowess. Bill’s influence as a leader in UW School of Medicine was monumental. He chaired the department of Pharmacology from 1983 to 2016. During this 33-year tenure, Catterall skillfully steered the department toward great heights, recruiting faculty with interests in opioid and cannabinoid pharmacology, neurobiology of synaptic transmission, and the investigation of cell signaling events. Under his leadership, UW Pharmacology became a preeminent department of pharmacology that is perennially ranked in the top 10 nationally and internationally. Bill served the greater scientific community on review and advisory boards for the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the Pasteur Institute. Bill was equally committed to the teaching mission. In 2000 he co-founded an undergraduate program in neurobiology that is now one of the most esteemed degrees in the College of Arts and Sciences. Bill was also a key advisor to UW Medicine leadership offering invaluable advice to deans and others as they navigated intricate political terrain of an academic medical center.

Finally, Bill heavily invested in people. He was a devoted husband, father, and grandfather who was passionate about hiking, skiing, and sailing in the waters of the Pacific Northwest. Over 100 scientists who were instructed in aspects of molecular pharmacology, electrophysiology, and biochemistry passed through his lab. Their mentorship was augmented by Bill’s long time colleagues Drs. Todd Scheuer, Ruth Westenbroek, and Tamer Gamal-El Din who guided the day-to-day routine of research operations.  Consequently, Catterall lab alumni are hugely influential in world pharmacology, with many going on to leadership roles in academia and industry. Each trainee is proud to trace their roots back to time spent at the bench with Bill Catterall. Thus, it was fitting that several Catterall alumni were with Bill when he unexpectedly passed away at an International Calcium Channel meeting in the Philippine islands. Bill left us doing the science that he loved, and surrounded by colleagues who revered and respected his remarkable life.

John D. Scott
Edwin G Krebs Professor and Chair of Pharmacology
University of Washington School of Medicine