Professor Alan T Bull (1936-2023): a tribute

04 September 2023


With great sadness, we learned of the passing of Alan Bull in June after a period of ill health. Alan had the most ebullient approach to life. He was so enthusiastic in everything he did as a scientist, his many cultural passions, and with his family and many friends.

His physical roots were in Derbyshire where his love of Derby County Football Club and sometime manager Brian Clough kindled a lifelong passion. His heart and original cultural enthusiasms came from Cymru (Wales) through his mother’s lineage explaining his devotion to Welsh Rugby Union and choral singing, in no particular order, but idyllically combined on match days. In the middle stage of his academic career for six years he was Professor of Microbiology at the University of Wales Institute of Science and Technology in Cardiff. It was his great pleasure that Gareth Davies, Wales’ fly-half and British Lion, was his tutee.

Alan’s education flourished at Nottingham University studying botany; at that time microbiology was emerging as a multidisciplinary subject from the shadows of medical bacteriology. He moved to lectureships first at Bedford College, then Queen Elizabeth College where he was influenced by Professor John Pirt, beginning his long research interests in culturing microbes, initially fungi, setting in train his entry into many facets of biotechnology. After a sabbatical year with Professor Martin Alexander at Cornell University, Ithaca, through a Fulbright Fellowship, he developed a permanent interest in environmental microbiology, the basis (excuse) for numerous world-wide collecting expeditions.

With an international reputation, Alan was a foundation appointment as Reader in Microbiology in the new Biological Laboratory established at the University of Kent at Canterbury, under Director Professor Ken Stacey. He started work in temporary accommodation in the Beverley farm building whilst Laboratory construction was in progress, days often ending with a game of bar billiards in the Old Beverley. He played a major role in quickly establishing the University’s microbiology, and wider biology, identity, leading the way into the biotechnology revolution. He inspired undergraduate and postgraduate students through his wide knowledge, detailed preparation and friendship. He gave his time to guiding and mentoring an eclectic mixture of newly appointed academics, generations of students and regular stream of overseas visitors and collaborators. Indeed, if there is a prime mark of his personality it was his innate ability to build many lasting friendships in the UK and around the world, frequently with smiles and handshakes likely to remove the arm of the unprepared! For his university contribution, it was entirely fitting that Alan succeeded Ken as Director of Biological Sciences.

In 1974 Alan was persuaded by Professor Harry Smith, then Treasurer of the Society for General Microbiology to assume executive responsibility as General Secretary. Alan held this position from 75 to 79, in a dynamic duo partnership with Harry as President. He certainly was the first of the new young breed of academics who began to influence their professional society, representing general microbiology and virology, quickly recognising the need to evolve and develop a much more efficient and active body. By this time Alan had a wide knowledge of organising science through his international networks in Europe and beyond. Inevitably he was a meticulous, efficient organiser, quick to see a need for strategic long-term policy decisions. Arguably his tenureship was key to modernising the Microbiology Society (as the old SGM is now known).

He was grounded by numerous cultural activities (more occasional sporting ones). One that springs to mind, in collaboration with others, was a National Heritage Arts Sponsorship award which enabled productions of Bernstein’s operetta of Voltaire’s novella “Candide” at the University, and (thankfully separately) Verdi’s Requiem, the latter sung in Canterbury Cathedral, with Alan in the choral bass section. In the same period, whilst leading a UK-sponsored biotechnology initiative to Indonesia, there was an open-air performance of the Sanskrit epic “Ramayana”, several gamelan concerts (with or without puppet shows), all rounded off with an expedition to find the last few remaining Javan rhinos struggling for survival in the rejuvenated rainforest following the Krakatoa eruption. The last failed but was not an unmitigated disaster since Alan recovered rhino faecal matter with microflora from a well-used wallow, assuring expenses for a microbe collecting effort. He also acquired, for a few rupiah, a large (heavy) bronze gamelan gong which caused much difficulty during the return journey.

The bedrock of his life was his family. His wife Jenny, a fellow Nottingham student and biology teacher; his daughter Rachel, a gardener; son Adam, a sculptor; and grandson Vincent, a businessman. We assure them deeply that we mourn with them and now also, as the family have requested, we celebrate an extraordinary career, but above all a wonderful, kind and generous human being.

Professor J Howard O Slater
Professor Alan Bull - photo album

The Guardian: Alan Bull obituary
School of Bioscience, University of Kent: Professor Alan Bull – friend, colleague and true polymath