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Other tributes to Dr. George F. Cahill, Jr.

Aldo Rossini, M.D.
Acting Head, Section on Immunobiology
Mary K. Iacocca Visiting Scholar, Harvard Medical School
Professor Emeritus, University of Massachusetss Medical School

Although George Cahill’s life came to an end on July 30, 2012, his journey touched many people and his impact will endure far beyond his time. His wonderful life partner, Sally, died two years earlier. He leaves 6 children and 15 grandchildren, nephews and many more throughout the world who trained under his mentorship.

As one of those privileged people that were touched by George, I wish to muse a few found memories. While I was a navy officer stationed in Charleston, South Carolina, I pondered how to proceed in my academic career. My advisor at St Louis University Medical School recommended me to Dr. George Cahill. During a visit to Florida, George asked me to visit him at his hotel room. I went to his room and met Sally and their youngest child Beth who was scurrying for “fuzz balls” on the floor. I was so nervous to meet the famous Dr. Cahill and all he said was “please call me George”. He offered me a position as a fellow at the Joslin and the Peter Bent Brigham Hospital. He told me that he would be the first Navy Corpsman to tell a Navy Officer what to do.

While on my trip north to commence my fellowship in Boston with my wife, Ann and our 18-month old son, Tony, we heard a news bulletin on the radio. Dr. George Cahill had accepted the position as the Chief of Medicine at the University of Connecticut Medical School in Farmington. The next day I went to see him in his office; I asked him if this news announcement had any validity. He said yes, but he had made arrangements to have someone else at Harvard to become my advisor. I told him that I did not accept this position for the VERITAS Logo but to work for the “MAN”. I would follow him anywhere just to have the opportunity to learn how he approached a problem and what made him decide to take one experimental path over another. Fortunately for many of us, he decided to stay as the Director of Research at the Joslin.

During my first year at Joslin, I worked on the metabolism of starvation with Tom Aoki. George continuously suggested brilliant experiments. His thinking as always was clear, insightful and concise. One of my fondest memories was the luncheons.  George would invite anyone who wished to join him for lunch at the Deaconess cafeteria. Here, he would talk about a myriad of subjects from sports to Molecular Biology. Whenever George started a sentence stating he doesn’t know much of a subject matter, it was followed by a long laden informational lecture on the subject. As his granddaughter once said, “There was George Cahill before there was Google.”
George always encouraged collaboration and to share ideas and experiments. He would say if you are concerned that someone is going to take your ideas, quit, because if there aren’t more coming you are in trouble. During one of our luncheons, he encouraged me to study the mechanism of Beta Cell death using toxins (Alloxan was the first, followed by Streptozotocin). The latter was performed together with Om Ganda. My immediate advisors were Tom Aoki and Neil Ruderman. Tom taught me the physiology of starvation and Neil the wonderful world of intermediate metabolism (which took a lot of work on his part).

The rich collaborative environment at the Joslin was manifested by the many interactions of the faculty. Stu Soeldner, Art Like, Bill Chick and Bob Spiro to name a few. Many of the fellows met weekly to present their work and share their findings and thoughts at the famous “chalk talks.” George would preside and give advice. I remember when Art Like and I presented the multi –dose Streptozotocin experimental model and George suggested experiments that would become our next few papers. I will never forget Louise, his secretary of many years. She protected George from the throngs of people who wanted to have appointments with him. I remember one day passing her office as she was dictating and laughing uncontrollably. She shared with me the dictation. George was on his way from Boston to Stoddard dictating the Chapter on Diabetes for Harrison’s Textbook of Medicine. All of a sudden there is an expletive and George complaining that a car almost cut him off the road, and he continued uninterrupted with his dictation.                                               

George was the consummate teacher and mentor. He once gave a lecture to the Boy Scouts. I queried him on his reasoning and he responded that maybe one of them maybe among the next generation of scientists. This was enforced when George was involved in the inception of the Howard Hughes Institute. George Thorn and George Cahill convinced Howard Hughes to take the proceeds from Hughes Tool and invest it into future scientists. George Cahill identified a number of deserving recipients and many of these scientists are leaders in various areas of science today. The George’s paved the path for a new era of research funding and will be the paradigm for future research support.

Another unheralded impact that George had was the development of Human Insulin. While Dr. Shields Warren was conducting some of his famous radiation experiments, his technician observed that some of their animals became lethargic and responded only when given glucose. They discovered that these animals had an insulinoma. Shields offered them to George who then gave them to Bill Chick. (Rat Insulinoma RIN tumor). Bill collaborated with W. Gilbert and L Villa Kamaroff to develop the reagents and strategy to make the first genetically engineered synthetic insulin. Although they were close to being the first to make this discovery they lost the race to Herbert Boyer of California. What many did not appreciate was the urgency to make this discovery. In the 1970’s there was a shortage of pigs and cows due to cost containment. What was not appreciated was that this caused a shortage of insulin. George was asked to attend a meeting with a number of Congressmen to discuss alternative strategies (one of which was Human Insulin). Obviously these meetings were kept from the public. As usual, George was behind the scene making an impact in medicine. For one and half years he served as the President of the ADA and supported additional funding to be given for basic and clinical research, Career Development Awards and Fellowships. He echoed this same tune to the fledgling JDRF and to Congress.

All the accomplishments, awards and recognitions that George has made and received, I believe his greatest scientific legacy will be the people that he trained and mentored. I am both honored and flattered to be remembered as one of George’s fellows. In remembering George Cahill, I recall Newton’s letter of 1675 to Robert Hooke in which he stated, “If I have seen further than you and Descartes, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants. It gives me pleasure to acknowledge the parallel. Dona Nobis Pacem.”

Peter H Sonksen MD FRCP FFSEM (UK)
Emeritus Professor of Endocrinology St Thomas’ Hospital and King’s College, London
Visiting Professor Southampton University
Harkness Fellow at The Joslin Research Laboratories 1967 - 69

I first met George at the 1964 IDF Conference in Toronto. I was a very naïve research fellow in London (UK) having taken on a project comparing bioassay and immunoassay of insulin. I immediately liked him as he was so kind and helpful discussing issues with such a junior researcher and he invited me to visit the Joslin Research Laboratory in Boston. This I did in the weeks following the conference and he was extremely helpful and gave me a lot of his time with a personal tour of the facilities.

So when I was applying for a fellowship to obtain my ‘BTA’ (Been To America) it was natural that I should opt for the Joslin. Luckily I was successful in winning a Harkness Fellowship that through George’s hospitality gave me two of the happiest and most formative years of my life. Not only did I learn an immense amount about diabetes and metabolism but I also completed several projects that resulted in more than ten publications and we managed 53,000 miles seeing USA!

At the personal level, he was always a friend as well as a mentor. Forever smiling, he was extremely good company and we enjoyed weekly games of squash playing sometimes with the slow, soft UK ball – the only times that I managed to win! George had the ability to explain complex issues with great clarity and it was always a great pleasure to listen to him.

Guenther Boden, M.D.
Laura H. Carnell Professor of Medicine
School of Medicine
Temple University

I arrived at the E.P.Joslin research laboratory in May of 1965 as a post-doctoral reseach fellow coming from Tuebingen /Germany. Looking back, these were 2 very exciting and productive years,mostly thanks to George Cahill,jr. who  had made the Joslin the premier diabetes/metabolism oriented research institute in the world.

With his always friendly and supportive demeanor, he  had also created an atmosphere which was not only stimulating but  congenial and collegial.

Personally, George was about as far from a stuffed shirt German professor,as I could imagine. He loved all kind of sports. I once had the great pleasure to ski with him in Aspen and another time to play tennis with him in Maine. There, he had already one or both knees replaced,( a result of  prior  contact sport injuries),which would have kept any lesser man off the court.

There was also another story (which may or may not have been  true), but which  illustrates why  some of us fellows looked at George with a mix of admiration and envy. The rumor was that George, when stopped by a traffic cop, was found to have driven his little MG sports car with his ice skates on. This is how  I will always remember George ,a bit non-chalant,enjoying sports,work and life(and not necessarily in that order).

William W. Chin, M.D.
Executive Dean for Research
Harvard Medical School

I first met Dr. Cahill as a fourth year student at Columbia. He was one of my interviewers during the process of applying to Harvard Medical School in the fall of 1967.

I recall this interaction with George vividly as I sat nervously in his office on the fourth floor of the old Joslin research building. After the usual perfunctory questions about why I was interested in medicine, he popped a zinger: "You say that you suffer from seasonal allergic rhinitis. So tell me how ragweed pollen causes your problem."

Fortunately, I had recently read about the discovery of IgE (Ig "ND") and mast cells in the disease and so with relief began to related this factoid as the etiology. Whew! What luck I thought. Well, he quickly cautioned me though that we really didn't know the cause as no one knew the steps from "beginning to end" and to take care not to assume too much knowledge. I left thinking the worst.

However, I was fortunately admitted to the School. Thus, this simple episode and his medical school lectures on metabolism during starvation propelled me to a life of trying to understand of the full pathophysiology of other disorders.

George remained a constant supporter during my early years as a young endocrinologist, including promotion to an Investigator in the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in the early 1980's. I always enjoyed his good humor and his love of sport.

In the latter regard, I had the pleasure of a number of tennis matches with him either at the B&T Racquet Club in the old police horse stables in downtown Boston (in those days, you could tell/smell its origins; note that I was never invited to play squash with him) or in sunny Coconut Grove FL at the Hughes headquarters, often in doubles with George Thorn, Holly Smith, Jim Darnell and Jim Wyngaarden.

We have all lost a great physician-scientist, peerless diabetologist, and a wonder friend.

Mladen Vranic, PhD
Professor of Physiology
University of Toronto

My few memories of George are as follows:
When we had the IDF meeting in Brussels, the Queen was present and George addressed the meeting to "Your Majesty", and I think succeeded to excite her with his simple 45 minute talk.

When I organized the first exercise and diabetes symposium at the MacDonald Ranch in California. At the meeting, a helicopter came to pick up George and he was a bit embarrassed by it.

In my early days, George invited me to give a seminar at the Joslin to defend what I thought were the breakthroughs with our new tracer method. When I was flying to Canada, I did not declare that for the honorarium, I bought an electrical toothbrush. The result was that they confiscated the toothbrush, and I had to pay the exact amount of the honorarium that I received from George. 

Errol Marliss, MD
Professor McGill University
Montreal, Canada

I indeed am one of those whose career was launched by George in 1968-70, for which I have been and remain eternally grateful.  And I have possibly been the one who has most directly, for the longest time, "carried the flame" of his human fuel homeostasis theme, and its associations with protein metabolism. Admittedly, it has been as a small candle compared with of the monumental illuminations he accomplished. And I am still at it, so the candle burning from both ends hasn' t met the middle just yet.

An little anecdote among many you will be showered with is the following, from a person not given to interpretations of eerie coincidences. 

I have George's picture on my office wall facing my desk, so I have had lots of occasions to look up and thank him.  One happened last week, moving me to get up and dust off the photo (the one on the program from the ADA award ceremony a long time ago, in San Francisco, I believe). He never wanted to send me an autographed photo, though I had asked him many times over the years.

While having the photo in my hands, I reflected on the fact that I had no news about him for a long time.  I intended to Google him or email Neil, my usual source of George updates, to see what I could come up with. But I was distracted by one of the usual annoying  phone calls.

Bernard Zinman, MD
Director, Leadership Sinai Centre for Diabetes
Professor of Medicine, University of Toronto

Thanks for letting me know of his passing. I have many fond memories of  interesting conversations with him at Kroc meetings and at the ADA.

Thomas Aoki, MD
Professor of Medicine
University of California Davis

Thank you for the notice. I greatly appreciated your thoughtfulness in sending it to me. I also read your tribute to George. It was perfect. I will really miss him.

Gorden, Phillip, MD
Director Emeritus
National Institute of Diabetes, Digestive and Kidney Disease

Very sorry to receive this news. George was a very special person.

Melinda Maryniuk
Director of Diet and Nutritional Management
Joslin Diabetes Center

As a brand new dietitian arriving at Joslin in 1979 – I would never miss a lecture Dr. Cahill would give – as he had a way of teaching so that everyone could understand the topic, without talking down to anyone.  I used to say that he could read a phone book and the audience would listen. Best teacher I ever had!

Kenneth Quickel, MD
Past President
Joslin Diabetes Center

George and I had a long and somewhat sad phone talk when I went back to work in 2009. What a terrific guy he was!

Jesse Roth, MD
Emeritus, Scientific Director, National Institute of Diabetes, Digestive and Kidney Disease
Professor, Albert Einstein College of Medicine

Wow --- I recall with extreme clarity my first meeting with George. We are in an aging cohort!!

Page last updated: August 19, 2019