Tom D. Humphreys

By W. Steven Ward
Professor and Director, Institute for Biogenesis Research
John A. Burns School of Medicine, University of Hawaii at Manoa

It is with great sadness that the John A. Burns School of Medicine and the University of Hawaii at Manoa announce that the distinguished Professor Tom Humphreys, PhD died on February 7, 2014 after a three year long battle with prostate cancer at the age of 77.  It is difficult to synopsize anyone’s life in a few short paragraphs, much less the life of someone who lived life to its fullest, as did Tom, but in our grief we do our best to remember him to the world and to ourselves.  The most important things to Tom were his family and his work, and those of us who had the privilege to work with him know that he also had that most wonderful of human characteristics of always wanting to help others.  In this short memorial we will do our best to weave these different memories together, as they existed in his life.

Early Career

After starting college at Texas A&M, he graduated from the University of Chicago with a B.S., and quickly earned his Ph.D. at the same institution in 1962 in Zoology.  His early work focused on cell-cell adhesion in sponges, initiating seminal work in understanding cell adhesion properties basic to the rise of metazoans and the role of calcium in cell interactions. Upon finishing his doctorate, he accepted a postdoctoral fellowship at MIT for two years, then became an assistant professor there from 1963 to 1967.  While at MIT, he published the fifth paper of his career in Science, a symbol of the auspicious publication record he would eventually accrue.  He then spent five years at the University of California at San Diego as a faculty member where he published a landmark paper on species specific cell recognition of sponges in Nature, in 1970.  In that same year he moved to Hawaii where he would spend the rest of his life to join the Kewalo Marine Lab at the University of Hawaii at Manoa (UHM).

At the University of Hawai`I Manoa

At UHM, Tom was widely recognized as the first and only molecular biologist in the university.  He continued his study of marine invertebrates, using this system as a model to contribute to unlocking the mysteries of eukaryotic translation.  This yielded several high level publications in the highest ranking scientific journals, two in Nature and two in Cell.  This interest in the basic genetics and embryology of marine invertebrates continued until his death.  But Tom was a man of many interests and talents.  During his time at UHM, he was part of the newly formed Cancer Research Center of Hawaii in 1982, and served as its Interim Director from 1985 to 1988.   He was very involved in graduate student training, and in 1994, he successfully competed for the first T32 training grant for graduate students at UHM.  In 1988, he developed a Cell and Molecular Biology graduate course that remains the pre-eminent graduate course in the medical school and continued to coordinate the teaching of this course until just recently.  This course provides the foundation for many of the programs at JABSOM and still bears the outline he developed.

Hawai’I Biotech Pioneer

In 1982, Tom initiated another venture.  He lead a small group of UH scientists to develop a new company called Hawaii Biotech to take advantage of what he termed “research opportunities” using molecular biology along with local scientific expertise. Among other areas, Hawaii Biotech developed a taxol assay that eventually was key to the development and use in one of the helpful chemotherapy agents he was treated with last year. He later became interested in using his knowledge of molecular biology to lead a team to develop vaccines to viruses that had so far eluded efforts at immunization. The intellectual property of one of Tom’s insightful scientific initiatives was recently acquired by Merck, and may soon bring to market a successful vaccine that has eluded other intense research efforts.  Between 1998 and 2001, he used release time from UH to lead Hawaii Biotech to transition to venture capital funding.  The company is still the largest biotech company in Hawaii.

These successes at work were mirrored by a vigorous, sometimes challenging, but always interesting personal life. In 1981, Tom met his current partner and now husband, Allan Wang, MD, PhD.  Allan and Tom formed a lasting partnership for 33 years in which they shared a life and love that was an inspiration to all who witnessed it.  In 1997 Tom and Allan started a coffee farm on the Big Island that he visited frequently and from which he proudly gave samples to his friends. Tom fought tirelessly for progressive and ethical politics, women’s and civil rights, including the legalization of gay marriage. He lobbied Hawaii state legislators to support these issues. Careful work by Tom, along with other activists and a supportive legislator, tweaked the constitutional amendment that was passed to leave determination of marriage up to the legislature, ultimately leading to this past legislative special session’s approval of same-sex marriage without a divisive public vote. In the year before his death, same-sex marriage was legalized in Hawaii. The Washington Post featured an article about Tom and Allan’s fight to legalize same-sex marriage, acknowledging that they helped initiate the long and eventually successful fight to change the nation’s attitudes about sexual orientation.

“An inspiration for our own future”

Tom was a very successful scientist, an astute businessman, and loving father and husband. He cared about his fellow man, and used his energy for the betterment of those around him. Tom was a tireless advocate of protection and advancement of civil rights, and was a board member and key supporter of the ACLU of Hawai`i. In the last three years of his life, he joined the Institute for Biogenesis Research, where his leadership was welcome and informative. His fight against cancer was one of the most courageous and calming we have ever witnessed. Throughout the entire effort, he never displayed a sense of bitterness or anger. Rather, he was grateful for what life had given him, and adhered to a principle that one has a duty to enjoy the life one is given. He used his scientific background to assist his oncologists in finding new treatments that held his cancer at bay for three years longer than anyone expected. During this time, he came into work, initiated a new line of research for which he secured funding, and held a lab meeting at his hospital bed four days before his death. He lived every moment with joy in his heart and never gave quarter to his disease.

We will miss him. But those of us who were fortunate enough to have known him will keep the memory of his example of his life as an inspiration for our own futures.

Reprinted with permission from W. Steven Ward