AgBio Researcher Thomas Whittam Dies

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Thomas Whittam, Hannah distinguished professor of bacterial evolution, died after a two-year battle with brain cancer. (view larger image)

Thomas Whittam, MAES researcher and Hannah distinguished professor of bacterial evolution at MSU, died Dec. 5 after a two-year battle with brain cancer. He was 54.

Whittam’s research focused on the evolution and emergence of pathogens that cause food- and waterborne infectious diseases, with an emphasis on pathogenic forms of Escherichia coli that cause intestinal infections. Whittam is credited with clarifying the ancestry of a new type of food-borne pathogen, E. coli O157:H7, which causes hemorrhagic colitis, a type of gastroenteritis that infects and damages the lining of the large intestine. In collaboration with microbiologists from other countries, he was also studying the global distribution of bacterial clones and the dispersion of specific virulence genes in human and animal populations.

“Tom was an outstanding scientist who not only demonstrated his dedication to research but worked hard to create opportunities for countless undergraduate and graduate students to receive the education and training they need to be successful food science and microbiology researchers,” said John Baker, MAES associate director. “He will be sorely missed.”

Before coming to MSU, Whittam served as a faculty member in the Biology Department and the Institute of Evolutionary Genetics at Pennsylvania State University from 1985 to 2000. He joined MSU in 2001 as a faculty member of the National Food Safety and Toxicology Center, where he held academic appointments in the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition and the Department of Microbiology and Molecular Genetics.

Whittam received his doctorate in evolutionary biology from the University of Arizona in 1981 and his bachelor’s degree in biology from Franklin and Marshall College in 1976.

He is survived by his wife of 31 years, Beth Whittam; three children, Andrew, Benjamin and Elizabeth; mother, Helen Whittam; and sister, Lynda Whittam.

An informal memorial service was held Dec. 13 at his home in Okemos. Donations may be made in his name to the Greater Lansing Food Bank, P.O. Box 16224, Lansing, MI 48901, or the American Brain Tumor Association, 2720 River Road, Des Plaines, IL 60018.

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