William R Cullen was born in New Zealand and graduated from the University of Otago (MSc 1957) and Cambridge University (PhD 1959). He accepted a position at the University of British Columbia (UBC) in 1958 becoming professor in 1969, emeritus professor in 1998, and adjunct professor at Royal Military College (2000).
Cullen received the Noranda Lecture Award in 1973. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada in 1993 and received the CIC Environment Award in 2014. Around 1970 he established the bioinorganic chemistry group at UBC. His early work on arsenic biomethylation was recognized as a milestone of Canadian chemistry. Related work revealed that some organoarsenic species, previously believed to be harmless, reacted with DNA. These results are now incorporated into studies of arsenic impacted populations. Cullen was involved with the cleanup of the arsenic contaminated Giant Mine in Yellowknife and most recently with evaluating contamination from a coal mine on Vancouver Island. This work has garnered considerable media attention.
Cullen was a member of the CIC Board of Directors and Chair of both the CSC inorganic chemistry division and the CIC environment division. He is a highly valued consultant to government agencies such as Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), US Geological Survey, and US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). He was a member of the US EPA/NRC Committee on Arsenic in Drinking Water and advisor to CIDA on their involvement in arsenic mitigation in Bangladesh.
His book Is Arsenic an Aphrodisiac? The Sociochemistry of an Element, RSC Publishing 2008, has been well received.