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William “Bill” Catterall, PhD, professor and former chair of the Department of Pharmacology at the UW School of Medicine, passed away on Feb. 28, 2024, at the age of 77.

Catterall was best known for discovering the voltage-gated sodium ion channel and calcium channel proteins, which initiate the brain’s electrical and chemical signaling in nerve and muscle cells (how the brain receives, processes and sends information).

He 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 UW School of Medicine Department of Pharmacology in 1977 and continued to be actively engaged in research until his passing.

A pharmacology pioneer

Catterall pioneered the biochemical investigation of calcium and sodium ion channels, which 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 defined the molecular basis of ion channel gating whereas later studies with his pharmacology colleague Ning Zheng, PhD, revealed details of how they operate at the atomic level.

Catterall was able to discover how a variety of toxins and medications act to “lock the gate” on these ion channels. These advances have opened the door to more effectively understanding and treating a spectrum of conditions by controlling the body’s electrical signals — conditions such as abnormal heart rhythms, chronic pain, epileptic seizures and periodic paralysis.

International recognition and awards

Catterall was elected to the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and the Royal Society of London. His many prestigious awards include the Gairdner International Award of Canada, the Robert R. Ruffolo Career Achievement Award in pharmacology from the American Society for Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics, and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the International Union of Pharmacologists.

Leaving a legacy of leadership

At the UW School of Medicine, Catterall chaired the Department of Pharmacology from 1983 to 2016. During this 33-year tenure, he recruited faculty with diverse interests, including opioid and cannabinoid pharmacology, neurobiology of synaptic transmission and the investigation of cell signaling events. Under his leadership, the department was consistently ranked in the top 10 nationally and internationally.

He was equally committed to the teaching mission. In 2000, he co-founded an undergraduate program in neurobiology at the UW College of Arts and Sciences.

Over 100 scientists instructed in molecular pharmacology, electrophysiology and biochemistry benefited from his mentorship.

“Bill was a titan of the field of ion channel physiology and a hugely influential force in the world of pharmacology. Bill’s positive influence in the Department of Pharmacology, the undergraduate neuroscience program, and UW School of Medicine is incalculable,” says John Scott, PhD, chair of the Department of Pharmacology. “He will be deeply missed while his scientific advances will live on as new discoveries and applications are built on his monumental work.”

Read more from the Department of Pharmacology and the UW Medicine Newsroom.