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Honoring Dr. Thomas Cahill

Cahill programA man whose outstanding science was matched by his humanity

By Roberta Millstein

On Saturday, a packed St. James Catholic Church paid their respects to one of Davis’s most esteemed and well-loved sons, Dr. Thomas Cahill, better known to his friends and family as “Tom.”

Tom’s achievements were many; they are outlined in the obituary in the Davis Enterprise.  What most impresses me about his record was his dedication to doing science that mattered.  Trained as a nuclear astrophysicist, he quickly turned to the issue of air quality in California and was one of the small team that successfully advocated for the lead- and sulfur-free gasoline in the early 1970s.  His work on air quality continued throughout his career, even after his “retirement,” working on ultra-fine aerosols (including their impact on first-responders to the 9/11 World Trade Center attack) and aerosol impacts on global climate.

A few years ago, I was visiting at another university and met another faculty member who worked on air quality.  I asked him if he had heard of Tom Cahill.  The answer?  “Of course, yes!  Tom is the person to talk to about air quality issues.”

It used to be that people thought that science and values should be kept separate.  That view is slowly (and thankfully) changing, a change that many in my academic field (philosophy of science) have been urging for some time.  I think with radical climate change, with biodiversity loss, with the impact of pesticides – not to mention “older” issues like radiation from atomic weapons, we are realizing that it has to change.  Tom was at the vanguard of that change, always working to better the human condition.

And he did so right up until the very end.  In April, he penned a goodbye to friends on his Facebook page, noting that there was no longer any hope that the doctors could treat his advanced bone marrow cancer, but saying that he had “agreed to try to stay alive for 4 weeks for the sake of the Clinical Study” that he was a part of.  He knew that the scientific findings of the study could help others and he made a sacrifice, perhaps his final sacrifice, so that others could be helped even after he was gone.

I had the fortune of meeting Tom during the first Nishi campaign.  He and his wife Virginia had taken out an “ad” in the Davis Enterprise, outlining the terrible health impacts at the Nishi site and offering to send anyone who asked for the peer-reviewed evidence (much of which he had produced himself) to support his claims.  On the fence about Nishi, I took him up on his offer, and found my email deluged with convincing and damning scientific evidence that Nishi was not suitable for housing.  We struck up a friendship that continued through the first Nishi campaign and into the second.

What I quickly learned was that Tom was knowledgeable, sharp, detail-oriented, articulate, and careful in his assessments.  The consummate scientist.  But I also quickly learned that he was kind, generous with his time and his knowledge, honest, sincere, passionate, and caring.  When he fought for Nishi, he fought for a cause he believed in, and he was deeply disappointed in how things turned out.  Even after the result, he wanted to continue to study the site and learn more in the hope that it could help future residents.

In lieu of flowers, Tom’s family has suggested donations to the UC Davis Foundation for support of the Cahill Riparian Preserve, Catholic Relief Services, the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, Loaves and Fishes/Maryhouse, Sacramento, or a charity of the donor’s choice.

I’d like to suggest that we can further honor his memory by supporting science that works for the betterment of humankind and the natural environment.  Having lost a true champion and an outstanding human being, others will need to step in and take up the banner.  They will need our help.

Comments

Ron O

How cool is it that this man donated land to UC Davis, to create the riparian reserve that now bears his name!

Eileen Samitz

Thank you Roberta, for this beautifully written article honoring Tom which so well covers what an exceptional person Tom Cahill was and how much he will be missed by so many. He and Ginny have been a team from the time they met and could not have been better matched. I had the pleasure of also meeting his wonderful children at the gathering this past Friday who clearly appreciated what a terrific father they had.

I am grateful to have met Tom and got to know him and Ginny during the Nishi1.0 and Nishi 2.0 campaigns opposing these proposals for so many reasons which Tom did a incredible job explaining. Although the project went through, Tom and all of us opposing it were disappointed, but rather than go negative, Tom kept a positive attitude and continued his work locally, nationwide and globally with his DELTA group. DELTA is a group which Tom started where he recruited and worked with scientists all around the globe with a mission of studying the health impacts of poor air quality impacts on health, and trying to help make changes to protect the health of populations all around the world.

Tom and Ginny have been long-term members of St. James Church and it was evident by the enormous turnout to honor him, that his faith and many friends were there for him until the end.

My sincere condolences to Ginny and her children, and I hope that they take some comfort in knowing that all of us who were fortunate enough to know Tom will always remember him for his benevolent nature, his many accomplishments, and the remarkable person that he was.

Roberta L. Millstein

Thank you so much for your comments, Eileen. They help fill out the picture. I hope that others comment here with their reflections and rememberances of Tom Cahill. Like you, I extend my sincerest condolences to Ginny and the rest of Tom's family.

Todd Edelman

I only met him once or twice in the Nishi context and then we were FBF's. Nice guy.

For some reason I appreciate it when a deeply religious person is also a scientist -- from what I understand about Catholic beliefs - and I know more about air quality(!) - Tom will be up in his Heaven, observing what kind of air filtration system is finally used at Nishi, and the results it produces.

Rick Entrikin

Thanks for the beautiful tribute, Roberta. I had seen Tom's name in print in "Popular Mechanics," before moving to Davis many years ago, so he was a legend to me. When I finally met Tom in an exercise class about five years ago I was impressed that someone so famous could be so welcoming and unassuming. He was a very nice man and a great scientist. Condolences to Virginia and family.

John Troidl

What a gem Tom Cahill was! I am reading his book "Critical Masses: Exposes of a Catholic Nuclear Physicist".... an autobiography of sorts and it is a fascinating read! Historical, scientific, personal, insightful..... just like Tom. It has also made me laugh out loud numerous times as I flip the pages faster and faster. Indeed, Tom's spirit lives on in this and over 280 other publications ranging from scientific to fiction to autobiography. Smart people will read his work.

PS There was one more copy available at The Avid Reader when I stopped by there at 12:10 p.m. today. Maybe they will order more!

John Draper

My dad, Jim Draper, worked with Tom at UCD. He was a funny, good natured person, with a huge intellect. I know my dad was quite fond of him.
My condolences go out to his family and friends.

Susie Aronson


Thank you for your tribute to Professor Cahill. We are so very fortunate to have had his pioneering in this integration of values and environment. And for all of his lifelong work in sciences. We have much to appreciate him for.


John Troidl

In Chapter 7 of "Critical Masses", Dr. Cahill talks about his scientific work used to get the Federal EPA to go along with the advanced environmental policy that the Governor Jerry Brown in his first term was supporting to rid California of automobile generated air pollutant including sulfur and lead..... that work by Cahilll lead to the adoption of the catalytic converter required in California.... so millions of Californians (and those who visit our state) have Professor Cahill to thank for this tremendous environmental health (public health) work on our behalf. He published a paper about this in 1975.......in the Journal of the Air Pollution Control Association, titled "Effect of Roadbed Configuration on Traffic Derived Aerosols". Those who question Dr. Cahill's expertise in studying the effects of highway/auto/truck sourced pollution probably still think the world is flat, too!

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