News & Events

The Department Mourns the Passing of Dr. William R. Cullen

Dr. William R. Cullen, FRSC, Professor Emeritus (Inorganic and Environmental Chemistry) passed away on December 1st, 2019. He was 86 years old.

Bill, a New Zealand cricketer with a knack for chemistry, from Dunedin on the South Island, received his BSc and MSc degrees from Otago University, and his PhD from Cambridge University working with Harry Emeléus FRS, one of the giants of the post-war era.  Bill then joined the Department of Chemistry at the University of British Columbia (UBC) in 1958, as Instructor, the youngest-ever junior faculty member and for many years the longest-serving UBC Professor of Chemistry.  He won multiple Killam awards for research from UBC even while, to the distraction of its administration, leading the UBC Faculty Association as President and negotiating significant gains in conditions and salary for UBC faculty members at the very start of the 1990s.  He served on UBC’s Board of Governors (1993-1996) shortly thereafter as elected faculty representative.

From his doctoral research, Bill’s long-standing interest in main group elements, particularly arsenic, took him from basic coordination chemistry to chiral organometallics to founding bioinorganic chemistry at UBC to the environment where he had an early and prescient interest in remediation and its causes.  Bill’s doctoral thesis concerned perfluoroalkyl-arsenicals; fluorine and arsenic featured prominently in his first ten years work at UBC, with many single author publications.  Subsequent forays into transition metal cluster organometallic compounds and fluorocarbons (which likely led to his later career as an environmental chemist), led to his Noranda Lecture Award from the Chemical Institute of Canada (CIC) in 1974.  His interest in the biological and environmental chemistry of arsenic began in the 1970s and found increasing focus on societal problems.  Bill was always passionate arguing the importance of basic research to the “big picture”.  His early work on arsenic biomethylation was cited in the 2011 Milestones of Canadian Chemistry, and related work revealed that some organoarsenic species, previously believed to be harmless, reacted with DNA. These results are now incorporated into studies of arsenic-impacted populations.  By the mid-1990s his entire research was devoted to As and the environment; both research and advisory roles came his way.

Bill had a broad international collaborative network but also worked widely on campus, publishing with at least a dozen Chemistry members plus many other UBC colleagues.  Not only did he make a mark for his outstanding research and his sought-out opinion, but also his community-mindedness, serving on many boards and conference organization committees, notably for 3 years each on the CIC Inorganic Division Executive, the CSC Board of Directors and the Executive of the Confederation of Faculty Associations of BC.  His study leaves over the years always involved universities the UK (Bristol, Sussex, de Montfort) or Australia (Monash, UWA, ANU, Adelaide) except for one exceptionally productive visit to Graz in Austria in the 1990s.

In 1998 Bill retired as professor emeritus at UBC and was awarded the UBC President’s Service Award for Excellence.  He was appointed adjunct professor at the Royal Military College (RMC) of Canada in Kingston shortly after, beginning his active post-retirement research career. Bill’s research for 50 years was much heralded and recognized - he was elected Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada in 1993.  Illustrating the importance of Bill’s lifelong arsenic focus and post-retirement career were the Environment Division R&D Dima Award from the CIC in 2014 and the E. W. R. Steacie Award of the Canadian Society for Chemistry (CSC) in 2015.  His two Royal Society of Chemistry books “Is Arsenic an Aphrodisiac? The Sociochemistry of an Element” (2008) and “Arsenic is Everywhere: Cause for Concern?”, the latter with his long-time collaborator and close friend Ken Reimer from RMC (2016) were both scientific best sellers.

Bill consulted widely always on environmental issues and served on many conference committees, editorial boards and as Regional Editor for the journal Applied Organometallic Chemistry for many years.  Bill’s government advisory service included the Environment Ministries for both Canada and Ontario, as well as the NSF/NRC Committee on Toxicology/Arsenic in Drinking Water and significant activity in the Canadian Water Network.  Bill was involved with the cleanup of the As-contaminated Giant Mine in Yellowknife and with evaluating coal mine contamination on Vancouver Island. He published more than 400 papers and book chapters, co-authored numerous government studies, and graduated more than 100 MSc/PhD/postdoctoral students.

Bill, a towering figure in inorganic and environmental chemistry in Canada, passed away from pneumonia December 1 surrounded by family. A celebration of his life is planned for the spring.