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Professor Thomas Cavalier-Smith FRS FRSC

 

Tom passed away on 19 March 2021 surrounded by his close family. We send them, the rest of his family and friends worldwide, our condolences. 

 

On his last day he asked to be taken into the grounds of the hospital where he was receiving palliative care, to see the flowers in the beds and hear birdsong for the last time. This was a final expression of his life-long love of nature, which had always nourished his scientific energy and achievements. On a walk in the countryside, he was as passionate about identifying, observing, and talking about the birds, plants, and other aspects of natural history, as he was at conferences discussing the latest research. 

His excitement when looking down a microscope was in some ways childlike, and very infectious. The combination of fun, fearlessness, and challenge in his approach to science was both energising and liberating. In the week since his death, social media have been flooded with reminiscences and statements about the extent to which working or interacting with him has encouraged and challenged his colleagues across

the world for decades. He was generous with his time, and delighted to speak with anyone - however junior – often at great length to impart knowledge, encouragement, and ideas, on a wide range of topics. Such conversations were particularly engaging because he was also very clearly eager to learn; everyone had something valuable to say.

And he had a lot to talk about. Without even contemplating an exhaustive list, over a publishing lifetime of what will almost certainly exceed 55 years (first paper published in 1967), his research covered an unparalleled diversity of fundamental topics including cellular and genome evolution of both eukaryotes and prokaryotes, eukaryotic origins and those of life itself, symbiogenesis, viral evolution, the evolution of genome size, the cell cycle, introns, and selfish DNA, prokaryotic and eukaryote phylogenetics, rooting the eukaryote tree, classification, biodiversity and biogeography of protists; and not just protists, but also the evolution and diversification of animals, plants, and fungi. We haven’t caught up yet.

 

I visited Tom and Ema - his wife and research collaborator - in their house in Cornwall last autumn. Together in recent years they have planted over 200 trees and bushes on their land, intended for nature conservation and refuge into the future. This captures the essence of the man as much as his extraordinary scientific output, the legacy of which is still evolving. 

 

More detailed obituaries are currently being written for the European Journal of Protistology, Journal of Eukaryotic Microbiology, among others; also see relevant society webpages.

 

David Bass

27 March 2021