Beloved by students, Prof. Cahill dies at 85
By Matthew Mc Nierney, The Dartmouth Staff
Published on Tuesday, August 14, 2012
The flags on the Green flew at half-mast on Monday for George Cahill, Jr., a former Dartmouth biology professor and diabetes researcher best known for his work on understanding human starvation, who died at the RiverMead Retirement Community in Peterborough, N.H., on July 30 as a result of complications due to pneumonia, according to the Monadnock Ledger-Transcript. He was 85 years old.
Cahill walked into Dartmouth’s biology department in 1989 hoping to continue teaching after his resignation as vice president of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, a major source of funding for scientific research, biology professor Lee Witters, a former colleague of Cahill, said. After being hired as an adjunct professor, Cahill pioneered an introductory biology course for undergraduates not majoring in the discipline, according to Witters.
His lectures were so popular that the class, initially slated to be held in Steele Hall, needed to be moved down Tuck Mall into a larger auditorium to accommodate the growing number of interested students by the end of the first week. Over the eight years that Cahill taught at Dartmouth, hundreds of Dartmouth students passed through his introductory course, according to Witters.
“His breadth of knowledge and his ability to relate to students was spectacular,” Witters said. “That’s the great gift that he had — he could reduce the most complex biochemical phenomena down to the understanding of a philosophy major.”
To keep his lectures interesting and memorable, Cahill would often use anecdotes from his expertise in comparative physiology to analogize human processes to similar functions in animals, the most memorable of which were his stories of hummingbirds crossing the Gulf of Mexico and his study of bears hibernating, according to Witters.
“If you didn’t remember everything [from a lecture], you’d remember the hummingbird,” Witters said.
In 1994, Cahill’s course was among those recommended by The Dartmouth — staff columnist Dan Richman ’95 wrote in an article that “Introduction to Biology for Non-Majors” was both “well-designed” and “interesting.”
“Cahill is not only a bright and funny man, but he succeeds in conveying scientific material to people not interested in science,” Richman wrote.
Raised in New York City, Cahill attended St. Igantius Loyola Catholic school and moved on to The Hotchkiss School in Lakeville, Conn., when he was 12. He matriculated to Yale University at the age of 16 and graduated with the class of 1949 after a brief interruption while he served as a pharmacist’s mate in the U.S. Navy.
Cahill completed medical school at Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons in 1953 and began his research on diabetes at the Peter Bent Brigham Hospital in Boston, now Brigham and Women’s Hospital, where he focused on studying metabolism, according to a July 31 tribute to Cahill published on the Joslin Diabetes Center’s website.
Throughout his research, Cahill was primarily interested in determining the processes that keep humans alive when they have little access to food, according to Witters. His research shed light on how humans store energy and how that energy is used in the body to allow humans to survive for long periods of time without food and still be mobile, a feat of which no other species is capable, Witters said.
Cahill’s research uncovered that insulin is the “primary mover” in determining human starvation, meaning that it is almost impossible to tell the difference between someone that has diabetes and someone that is starving, according to Witters.
“He was an absolute giant in the field of metabolism,” Witters said. “He knew more about starvation and its biological and health consequences than anyone else in the country.”
As a colleague, Witters said that Cahill was always interested in his peers’ work, even if it was far from his area of expertise. He was patient, and his “intellectual vigor” contributed to his curiosity, Witters said.
“He readily engaged all kinds of people here,” Witters said.
When Cahill decided to leave Dartmouth due to health reasons and to spend more time with his family, he asked Witters to teach his “Introduction to Biology for Non-Majors” course, a request that was Witters’ first introduction to undergraduate teaching and has since turned into 17 years of teaching Dartmouth students.
“He had all the qualities of a great physician, a great researcher and biologist and all of the qualities of a great human being,” Witters said. “Even though he touched down here [at Dartmouth] for a relatively small period, he really made a lasting impact on an awful lot of undergraduates.”
Witters said that he still has his students read one of Cahill’s papers published 40 years ago in the New England Journal of Medicine summarizing his work on human metabolism, not because the two were such great friends and colleagues, but because the paper is essential to any introduction to biology.
“It’s just such an important paper that stands the test of time in a way that a lot of biomedical papers do not,” he said.