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Tenacious researcher advanced microbiology

| Sunday, May 13, 2012, 10:04 p.m.
J. William Costerton
J. William Costerton Submitted

After noticing more bacteria in the slime on rocks in mountain streams than in the water, J. William Costerton developed a theory that revolutionized microbiology.

He determined that bacteria congregate on the surface of everything from those rocks to the interior of the human mouth.

"It's the most important work in microbiology of the last century," said Garth Ehrlich, executive director of the Center for Genomic Sciences at Allegheny General Hospital.

J. William Costerton of the North Side, director of microbial research for Allegheny General Hospital's Department of Orthopedics and director of biofilm research for the Center for Genomic Sciences at AGH on the North Side, died of pancreatic cancer on Saturday, May 12, 2012, in his home in Kamloops, British Columbia. He was 77.

He was born July 21, 1934, and grew up in the mountains of British Columbia. His father died when he was 8, and his mother left him with his uncles, who were shepherds, while she went to nursing school.

The boy became a shepherd and adept at a rugged life outdoors. At 10, he was running several thousand sheep across a mountain range when his dogs treed a mountain lion, Ehrlich said. He shot it and it fell, snarling and growling out of the tree, until the youth emptied his magazine into it.

"He just lived his life with courage, both physically and intellectually," Ehrlich said. "He was always willing to take what people think of as a polarizing stance. He would see through (a problem) earlier and faster than the rest of us."

Mr. Costerton received bachelor's and master's degrees in bacteriology from the University of British Columbia, a doctorate in bacteriology from the University of Western Ontario and a postdoctoral fellowship from Cambridge University in England.

He went to India to build a missionary hospital and medical school in India, where he was dean. In 1964, he hiked 7,000 miles across Asia and Europe to meet up with his wife, Vivian, in England.

While at the University of Calgary, he developed his theory about colonies of bacteria that he called biofilm. Previously, researchers thought of bacteria as free-swimming plankton. He showed that most bacteria really attach to the surface of objects such as rocks.

Dr. Christopher Post, president and scientific director of the Allegheny-Singer Research Institute and medical director of the Center for Genomic Sciences, said biofilms are responsible for "morning mouth," the film of bacteria we wake up with.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that 60 percent of infections come from biofilms. From Mr. Costerton's research, scientists have learned that many infections come from objects such as prostheses, pacemakers and stents implanted in patients.

Mr. Costerton worked at Montana State University and the University of Southern California before he was recruited to Allegheny General.

"He raised the visibility of research at AGH, particularly for the orthopedics program, to an international level," Ehrlich said.

Mr. Costerton wrote more than 700 scholarly papers. Last year, the hospital gathered hundred of his former students from around the world to honor him.

He had a passion for mountain climbing and was among the pioneers of helicopter skiing.

"He was always a pushing-the-envelope kind of guy," Post said.

In addition to his wife, survivors include daughters Diane Costerton of Kamloops, Sheila Norton of Victoria, British Columbia, and Nancy Wagner of Kamloops; a son, Bob Costerton of Kamloops; nine grandchildren; and one great-grandchild. He was preceded in death by a son, John.

Funeral services will be at 2 p.m. May 22 in St. Paul's Cathedral in Kamloops.

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