Obituary: John William Costeron / Pioneering microbiologist came to WPAHS four years ago

July 21, 1934 -- May 12, 2012

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John William Costerton had done a lot outdoors, from shepherding as a boy to skiing from helicopter landings in mountain ranges as a young man, but he will long be known best for what he did indoors for the past several decades.

Mr. Costerton was one of the most esteemed microbiologists in the world, a pioneer whose research in laboratories, mountain streams and elsewhere revolutionized thinking about how bacteria live and prosper. It was a coup for the West Penn Allegheny Health System when it brought the native Canadian here four years ago to continue his work, even though he was well into his 70s by then.

In his position as director of biofilm research for the system's Center for Genomic Sciences, he thrived in collaborations with hospital surgeons and others but was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer late last year. Mr. Costerton died Saturday in the permanent residence in Kamloops, British Columbia, he had retained while working here and returned to as his health declined. He was 77.

Mr. Costerton was so esteemed that 150 present and former colleagues, students and others gathered in Pittsburgh Feb. 24-25 for a festschrift -- an academic celebration of his work and influence on others -- to honor him with both scholarly sessions and parties. Attendees came from as far as Australia and Singapore. The usually modest scientist was able to enjoy the tribute though he was typically the instigator of such gatherings and collaborations, rather than the focus of recognition.

"He built an entire worldwide community of scientists ... where almost everyone works well together, and it's simply because of Bill's personality," said Garth Ehrlich, executive director of the Center for Genomic Sciences. "He just brought everyone together with such joy and enthusiasm. He was like a father of the field."

The field was biofilms, a term he gave to the slimelike, microscopic colonies of bacteria that live on everything from rocks in a river to the inside of your mouth to the surfaces of artificial hips and knees. They can spread harmful contamination and infection, and his work since the 1970s in describing how they live straightened out wide misperceptions.

Difficulties in using antibiotics to fight infections have often been tied to the misunderstanding of how bacteria thrive.

A good writer who once toyed with the idea of being a newspaperman, Mr. Costerton produced some 700 papers about his findings. He was also recognized as a superb teacher, winning faculty awards while attracting hundreds of students into his freshman biology courses.

After arriving at WPAHS following a stint at the University of Southern California, he collaborated with orthopedic surgeons on new research. For years he had already been partnering with clinicians at West Penn-AGH studying best practices for treating the common childhood malady of middle ear disease.

Mr. Costerton embraced the concept of "translational research" where his findings could be put into medical practice, rather than simply admired in a research paper. He enjoyed sharing studies with and listening to everyone from expert medical practitioners to undergraduate students.

"He had such a high energy level," said Christopher Post, a surgeon who is president and scientific director of the hospital system's Allegheny-Singer Research Institute. "He really liked young people and imparting his joy ... and there was a magnetism he had that people wanted to be around Bill."

Due to family circumstances when growing up in British Columbia, Mr. Costerton lived during boyhood with his uncles, who were mountain shepherds and taught him to be one. While he veered into studying science at the University of British Columbia, he always maintained his love of the outdoors and became a skilled mountain climber and skier.

In Pittsburgh, where he lived on the North Shore while frequently visiting his wife and children back in Kamloops, he loved walking across a bridge to attend any number of theatrical productions in the Cultural District. He was a generous man who would buy tickets for others he invited to join him, just as he was typically the first one to reach for a check at a restaurant.

"He was highly regarded, well accepted and extremely well respected," said Patrick DeMeo, system chairman of the Department of Orthopaedic Surgery.

Mr. Costerton is survived by his wife, Vivian; three daughters, Diane Costerton and Nancy Wagner, both of Kamloops, and Sheila Norton of Victoria, British Columbia; one son, Robert of Kamloops; nine grandchildren; and one great-grandchild.

A funeral service is planned next Tuesday in Kamloops.

obituaries

Gary Rotstein: grotstein@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1255. First Published May 15, 2012 12:00 AM


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