Professor Alan Bull

Elected: 2017

Area(s): Science, Technology, Engineering, Medicine & Mathematics

Specialist Subject(s): Biology - Microbiology, Biotechnology

Emeritus Professor, University of Kent

This obituary, written by Professor Michael Goodfellow of Newcastle University, was published in The Guardian on Thursday 13 July 2023.

My friend and colleague Alan Bull, who has died aged 87, was an internationally renowned microbiologist and pioneer of biotechnology, developing procedures that opened up new approaches to studying microbial ecology and pathogenicity. Such developments led to Alan chairing an Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development working party on the potential of biotechnology for industrial sustainability (1996-98).

Collaboration was central to Alan’s work. Together with Ian Swingland, a conservation biology professor at the University of Kent, where Alan spent most of his career, he was a founding trustee in 1989 of the Durrell Trust for Conservation Biology, and in 1992 launched a new journal, Biodiversity and Conservation, which is still going strong.

Latterly (1988-2020) he headed an international team that included myself, as well as professors from Chile, Germany and Japan, among others, which discovered many new antibiotics, notably the abbysomicins (natural products that have anti-tubercular and anti-cancer properties and are active against HIV), from actinomycete bacteria found in extreme habitats ranging from deep-sea sediments of the Challenger Deep in the Mariana Trench to extreme hyper-arid soils in the Chilean Central Andes.

Alan was honoured to have three microbial species named after him.

Born in Bretby, Derbyshire, to working-class parents, Thomas Bull, a picture-framer, and Selena Morgan, a Welshwoman who worked in a grocer’s, Alan had a happy childhood. After Burton-on-Trent boys’ school he studied botany at the University of Nottingham and stayed on to complete a PhD (1961).

In 1959 Alan met Jennifer Kaye, a zoology student, on a university expedition to the French Alps. They married in 1963, the year Jenny completed her PhD prior to working as a biology teacher.

Alan held academic positions at the University of London, Bedford (1961-64) and Queen Elizabeth (1964-70) Colleges, the University of Kent (1970-76) and University of Wales Institute of Science and Technology (1976-81), with a year from 1968 at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, as a Fulbright fellow.

In 1982 he returned to Kent as professor and head of the biological laboratory, then as research professor (1998-2003), and emeritus professor of microbial biology. His talents as a teacher and mentor led to many of his PhD students and postdoctoral fellows embarking on highly successful careers across the world.

Alan was an enthusiastic polymath, widely read and travelled, with a love of opera, Japanese gardens and hiking. He was as fun-loving as he was erudite.

A passionate supporter of the arts, he continued to sing for the university choir after retirement. At heart Alan identified with the cultural and political values of south Welsh communities and was overjoyed to be elected to the Learned Society of Wales in 2017.

Alan is survived by Jenny, their daughter, Rachel, son, Adam, and a grandson, Vincent.