Handing glass after glass of water to a student he selected from within his lecture hall, Dr. George Francis Cahill Jr. and others watched as the student squirmed and eventually ran from the room. In dramatic fashion, he was illustrating a lesson in homeostasis, or keeping an internal balance, and it was one of many everyday applications he used to explain biology to nonscience majors at Dartmouth College.
For many of his years as a scientist, however, he starved research subjects in a laboratory setting as a way to nourish diabetes research.
As research director of the Joslin Diabetes Center in Boston, Dr. Cahill wanted to better understand how the human body reacts to starvation. Ultimately, he found a connection between starvation and diabetes in the way insulin affects metabolism. This unusual approach, along with his many key publications based on his findings, helped established his reputation, colleagues and family members said.
“He approached diabetes, for example, from a human organ perspective,” said Thomas Aoki, professor emeritus at University of California, Davis, who called Dr. Cahill a mentor. “He asked the questions: ‘In the diabetic individual, what is the kidney doing? What is the brain doing?’ And tried to understand what all the different organs were doing and how they were interacting.”
Dr. Cahill, who also had a role in helping establish the Human Genome Project and had taught at Harvard Medical School, died of complications of pneumonia July 30 in Monadnock Community Hospital in Peterborough, N.H. He was 85 and had lived in Peterborough after many years in Stoddard, N.H.
“George had this wonderful love for research and he had incredible people skills, so he conveyed his joy and we just enjoyed it. It was exciting to be with him,” said Neil Ruderman, professor of medicine, physiology, and biophysics at Boston University School of Medicine and director of the Diabetes Research Unit at Boston Medical Center.
The two worked together at the Joslin Diabetes Center, and “the work he did when I first got there was really pioneering,” Ruderman said.
Internists and medical students flocked to Dr. Cahill’s “spellbinding lectures,” Ruderman said.
In his laboratory, Dr. Cahill set out to unlock the mystery of how people stay alive when deprived of food, studying in particular how energy is stored and later tapped when the body needs to dip into energy reserves. His research, which involved starving subjects for weeks at a time, showed a link between insulin and starvation, and illustrated that aspects of diabetes are reflected in the condition of human starvation. His research also highlighted the role protein takes in sparing organs from severe damage when people stop eating.
Dr. Cahill published his findings in medical journals, establishing a far-reaching reputation in the field of metabolism.
Easygoing around his laboratory, he often wore jeans and rarely was without his signature red handkerchief, colleagues said.
He treated young researchers as colleagues, not subordinates, and often hosted them at spirited dinner parties he threw at home.
Aoki recalled that Dr. Cahill would tell researchers: “Let your scientific curiosity take you wherever you want to go. All I ask is that you talk with me about it first.”
Born in New York City, Dr. Cahill started taking courses at Yale University at age 16, his family said, but his studies were interrupted by a stint as pharmacist’s mate in the Navy.
He graduated in 1949 with a bachelor’s degree from Yale. While in college, he met Sarah du Pont, who is known as Sally, in Bermuda, and they married just before he started medical school. She died in 2010.
Dr. Cahill graduated from the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York City, then moved north for a residency at the Peter Bent Brigham Hospital and a fellowship at Harvard Medical School.
Dr. Cahill joined the faculty at Harvard Medical School in 1957 and was appointed research director of the Joslin Diabetes Center in 1962.
That same year, he became heavily involved as an investigator with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, a philanthropic organization that funds research. He became the organization’s director of research in 1978, vice president in 1985, and senior scientist in 1989.
In the 1980s, Dr. Cahill testified as an expert witness for the prosecution in both trials of Claus von Bulow.
Von Bulow was accused of twice using insulin injections to try to kill his wife, Martha, who was known as Sunny. Von Bulow was initially convicted of attempted murder. The conviction was overturned on appeal, and he was acquitted in the second trial.
In the earlier part of his career, a friend advised Dr. Cahill to purchase land in Stoddard, N.H. After retiring from Harvard, he and his wife moved to Stoddard, where they accumulated more than 1,000 acres.
Often rising at 6 a.m., Dr. Cahill would go out on his tractor, then make work-related calls mid-morning before heading back out.
“He was passionate about everything,” said his son Peter of Los Gatos, Calif. “Everything was 1,000 percent.”
Like many academics, Dr. Cahill found it difficult to stay away from the university setting, so he began teaching at Dartmouth.
His first course became so popular it had to be moved into a large lecture hall mid-semester.
“His style was very engaging,” said his daughter Rhett of Acton.
“You were never quite sure where he was going and you had to pay attention because it was entertaining and he hooked you in,” she said. “And there were a lot of real-world laypersons’ examples of things.”
In addition to his daughter and son, Dr. Cahill leaves three other daughters, Colleen Remley of Green Bay, Wis., Eva of Calais, Vt., and Beth Tiedemann of New York City; another son, George F. III of Bellevue, Wash.; and 15 grandchildren.
A memorial service will be held at 12:30 p.m. Saturday in Union Congregational Church in Peterborough. Burial will be private.
For Dr. Cahill, even the act of eating a hamburger at the dinner table could elicit a discussion of the science behind everyday actions.
“He often used the word ‘beauty,’ ” his daughter Rhett said. “He would make it sound simple and beautiful.”