Bill Costerton, an award-winning Canadian microbiologist who pioneered the understanding of bacterial biofilms, will be remembered at a celebration of his life on Tuesday.
A professor at the University of Calgary for many years, Costerton, 77, passed away at his home in Kamloops on May 12. He didn’t spend a lot of time here, but his family settled in the city as he tirelessly pursued research in the U.S. long after most others retire.
“He was a very, very hard worker,” his wife, Vivian, recalled Friday. “For as long as I’ve known him, he got up at four or five a.m., possibly six if he was having a sleep-in.”
Born in Vernon, Costerton studied at UBC in the 1950s before receiving his PhD at the University of Western Ontario in 1960.
After Costerton’s postdoctoral training at Cambridge University, his research first took him to McGill University and then Calgary, where his positions included National Sciences and Engineering Research Council Industrial Research chair and research professor with the Alberta Oil Sands Technology and Research Authority. These allowed him to focus on research into bacterial biofilms.
A biofilm is an aggregate of micro-organisms that adheres to a surface, giving bacteria antibiotic resistance. Dental plaque, for example, is a biofilm. Costerton also made related discoveries that have greatly advanced strategies to combat chronic infections such as those linked to cystic fibrosis.
With his colleagues, Costerton demonstrated the existence of biofilms and showed they are the dominant mode of growth for bacteria. Skepticism in the scientific community eventually gave way to widespread acceptance of the importance of a discovery with applications in medicine, resource science and environmental science.
Costerton went on to become director of biofilm research at Montana State University for 11 years before relocating to the University of Southern California in Los Angeles and then Pittsburgh. At that stage, his wife said she wanted a place in Canada where she could live as he continued his research. They chose Kamloops because their son, Bob, a consultant, has resided here for 20 years.
Costerton was diagnosed in Pittsburgh with pancreatic cancer. A “Festschrift,” a celebration of his academic achievements, brought people from around the world to that city recently. His daughters and grandchildren also attended.
Described as a man of the mountains, he loved the outdoors and sports as well.
“That was a place where I could really be with him, because I wasn’t part of his work,” his wife recalled.
Tuesday’s celebration takes place at 2 p.m. at St. Paul’s Cathedral.