In Memoriam: Henry H. “Sam” Wheeler Jr., 1927-2015

by / Thursday, 22 October 2015 / Published in news, stories

Henry H. “Sam” Wheeler Jr., the founding donor and namesake for the Center for Emerging and Infectious Diseases, died this month at his home in Southern California. Sam was a highly engaged and interested supporter of CEND, and he will be sorely missed.

Sam Wheeler was born in California in 1927. Ten years later, his father, Henry H. Wheeler Sr., founded the Park Water Company, headquartered in Downey, California, and this became the family business. At the end of WWII, Sam entered college at UCLA and went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in mathematics. When his father died, Sam succeeded him as the President of Park Water Company and under his leadership it grew into a well-regarded and successful utility supplying a quarter of a million homes in the communities of Norwalk, Bellflower, Compton, Lynwood, Willowbrook, Artesia, and Santa Fe Springs in southeastern Los Angeles and, through a subsidiary, approximately 50 square miles in Apple Valley and parts of San Bernardino County.

Sam always loved science and his scientific curiosity was both intense and wide-ranging. He was a natural autodidact who could read up on a topic quickly, gaining a deep understanding. It was that curiosity and ability to understand its subtleties that prompted Sam to engage with science in the most meaningful way he could; through philanthropy.

Sam provided the seed funding that established the Wheeler Center for Emerging and Neglected Diseases (CEND). Prior to its formation, the Berkeley campus had few organizational structures dedicated to promoting cross-disciplinary research collaborations in specific areas of biomedical science such as infectious disease. Sam quickly recognized the benefits that could accrue if CEND succeeded. His pledge has ensured the continued growth and development of CEND.

Sam was fascinated by the technology of structural biology. The late Tom Alber, then the Director of CEND, took Sam on a tour of the Advanced Light Source at the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab where he was in charge of the UCB/UCSF beam lines. When Sam heard that resolution could be improved with the addition of a new detector module, he helped provide the funding necessary for its purchase.

Sam also enabled the creation of the Wheeler Brain Imaging Center and the purchase of the first of its fMRI systems. This was a prescient gift which allowed our campus quickly to become a leader in the burgeoning field of brain imaging. Sam also gave to the UC Berkeley’s School of Law to establish an Institute for Water Law and Policy which now bears his name.

UCSF has also benefited from Sam’s generosity. The Wheeler Center for the Neurobiology of Addiction, under the direction of Professor Howard Fields, has contributed significantly to our knowledge of the neural mechanisms that underlie addiction, and their regulation.

Sam also provided direct support for the research of several UC faculty members interested in water purity. These included, at UC Berkeley, Professor Arpad Horvath in Engineering, Professor Tyrone Hayes in Integrative Biology, and at UC Santa Barbara, Professor Patricia Holden.

Sam’s philanthropic philosophy was based on his belief that innovative science is done by scientists who have innovative minds. Accordingly, his purpose was always to support “the boots on the ground” as he put it; i.e., the scientists who do the research. He would achieve this either by directly funding their research or by enhancing the technological and/or intellectual environment in which that research was performed. Despite his generosity, he was a self-effacing man who wanted no memorials, no chairs in his name, no Wheeler buildings or facilities. Indeed, according to Geoff Owen, former Dean of Biological Sciences and advisor to CEND, we had to twist Sam’s arm to allow us to name our center after him.

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