M. Chairman


This is (a photo of ) Dr. Ernest Armstrong McCulloch

who was a Canadian scientist.


I want to tell you a little about him today.


Now when we think of a Scientist

we think of someone who has a great interest

in some particular scientific question.


The usual image ..that we have of…Our scientist….

is that …he….might , e.g, be found sitting at his  microscope ,

or..  she…. might have an endless fascination with reproductive physiology,

or.. he…. might  be seen scribbling equations on dinner napkins,

…..as did Albert Einstein.


This is the popular conception, the stereotype….

of  ….“The Scientist”


However, successful scientists

usually have other apparently unrelated interests

which they pursue          ….outside of the laboratory.


Einstein…loved violins, and sailboats .

Alfred Nobel…wrote plays, and poetry,

and Frederick Banting , who discovered insulin

…enjoyed painting Canadian landscapes.


Well, for Canadian scientist

Ernest Armstrong McCulloch…..

whose nick name by the way was…..”Bun”..

Bun McCulloch’s passionate Avocation…his hobby,

was ..Words.

Dr. McCulloch loved …Words.

The science that Dr. McCulloch did

was centred on Hematology….the study of blood.


He worked  

at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto

amongst Hematologists

and he became very well known,

as the man who

along with his colleague , Dr. Edward Till,

discovered something called… Stem Cells


Stem Cells are the blood cells

 which we all carry around in our Bone marrow.

These cells are interesting…

because they  have the ability to….. differentiate..

which means that they can transform

 into whatever kind of cell it is that

the body needs to have replaced

at any given moment.

They can turn into…a red blood cell, or a white blood cell,

or cells from other kinds of tissue,

such as bone , or liver.


Stem cells  are part of

the miraculous machinery of the human body.


So that was Dr. McCulloch’s Vocation

but his  Avocation as I noted

was that he loved words,

both written.. and spoken.


He committed them to memory,

he recited them,

he played with them,

and he devoured them by the shelf load-

as he read  history books, biographies, science fiction, plays, poetry.


He loved all of these forms of literature.

The key here is that apparently for  Dr. McCulloch

 “a word …was the skin of an idea”

…as somebody once said.


 and  no doubt this helped him as a scientist….

because as such… he was an ideas man.

and it was his job to generate ideas

….scientific ideas.


So  while he was doing work in his laboratory

that led to such medical advances

as bone marrow transplants,

and at the same time that he was a mentor, and an icon

for a generation of young scientists who came after him,


he had a parallel life,

as a husband,….. and father of five,

and also as a  lover of  language, and literature.


In fact, the two activities often came together.

E.g. When Bun was courting  his  wife,

whose name was Ona,

Bun  wooed  Ona … with lines

from Tennyson’s poem Ulysses.


And every Christmas he read aloud, to his family,

Charles Dicken’s… A Christmas Carol

and  C. S. Lewis’ … Narnia series,

and , according to his son Jim,

over the years of their family life

Bun McCulloch read aloud to the family

the entire Lord of the Rings Trilogy

not just once, but at least , three times


You would wonder how his family

could stand that,

but,  according to Jim , his father

had a sort of mesmerizing speaking voice, and delivery,

and in fact one     of the family friends

referred to Bun McCulloch, as   “The Voice.”

One of McCullough’s younger colleagues

was Dr. Alan Bernstein.

In 1967 Bernstein

was working in McCulloch’s lab

for the summer, as a young intern.


On one  particular occasion

Bernstein was presenting a project  to the McCulloch group

on the subject of  Macrophages,

which are a kind of white blood cell

found in the human body.


When he was right in the middle of his presentation,

Dr. McCulloch, who was seated in the audience

 suddenly shouted out….”Shaw!”

That was it,….. no other comment,….. just….”Shaw”.


This was obviously disconcerting to the young presenter Bernstein

but as no explanation was forthcoming from the great man

the only thing that the speaker could do

 was carry on,  which he did, finishing his presentation.


It was only later that Bernstein learned

that McCulloch’s sudden interjection

was a reference to …..

none other than George Bernard Shaw

and more specifically to a play that Shaw wrote,

called “The Doctor’s Dilemma”

in which, one character warns anotherto “Beware the Macrophage.”


So presumably this was an example

of humour, McCulloch style .

and perhaps he was making some scientific judgment as well.


It was all rather obscure.


Well , just as he liked to read aloud to everybody at home,

McCulloch’s style in his laboratory was the same.


He often thought out loud in the lab.

He used sort of a stream of conscious technique,

while he was working.  

He articulated ideas constantly,   as they came to his head,

and …he expected others to do the same.


So His labs must have been rather chaotic.


If there was a  visiting scientist  

who was presenting some material in McCulloch’s lab,

they were never permitted to use slides,

no matter how prominent the scientist was.


And of course, scientists

always use slides…. to present data..

its one of the rules of science.


But the Bun Rule was….no slides,

and Dr. McCulloch enforced this rule enthusiastically.

He would tell the visitor

that if he wanted to know about their data

he could look it up.


He would say.. “Tell us  what you are thinking…

Give us a …Chalk Talk.”

He loved these,  what he called… Chalk Talks.


When he wasn’t in the lab

he would often invite 10 or 15 people

to his cottage in Haliburton,

where where he would stand at  the blackboard,

to pontificate on some scientific point, chalk in hand,


and then , he would invite others…. to do the same.


According to Bernstein,

McCulloch “always had a piece of chalk in his hand,

and quite often in his mouth.” during these talks.


McCulloch’s chalk talks…were rousing.


His lectures…were inspiring.


His speeches, which were often a re write

of something composed by another scientist

were invariably an improvement on the original.


McCulloch was enthusiastic.


He got very excited about his work.


Another one of his proteges was  Ronald Worton.

Wortonjoined McCulloch’s lab in 1964,

and he recalled approaching  his boss one time

for help on Worton’s first research paper on stem cells,

which he hoped to publish.


McCulloch listened carefully

while Worton presented his data

and then the great man paced the office floor for a few minutes, pondering,

and then….he proceeded to dictate the entire research manuscript

from start to finish- in not more than 20 minutes.


The final version did not even need much editing.


So Bun McCulloch’s abiding interest in words

gave him a great facility

in both speaking,   and writing,

whether scientific or literary.


The McCulloch lab

published their first paper on stem cells

in 1961 in a journal called ….Radiation Research.


It came from  an experiment that they had done

transplanting irradiated bone marrow cells into mice


This experiment  lead to the discovery of these

important precursor, or stem, cells,  in 1961.


The two men, McCulloch and Till,

continued to work together over the next twenty years,

as a result of which they won

many  prestigious scientific awards and prizes.


although the big one  .. got away on them.

because McCulloch passed away

without winning the Nobel Prize,

for which many thought that he was a candidate.


However, for Dr. Ernest Armstrong McCulloch

it all came down to one thing…

and that was…..Words.


For Bun McCulloch,

who was a great Canadian scientist,

a word ,  was the skin of an idea.



 M. Chairman