Events & Media

November 3, 2015

Henry (Sam) Wheeler: 1927-2015
Remembering a Friend to Bren — and to Water-Quality Research

The Bren School learned recently of the passing of Henry (Sam) Wheeler, Jr., a philanthropist who left an indelible mark at the Bren School and across the UC system. A remembrance of Mr. Wheeler is featured currently on the website of UC Berkeley’s Henry Wheeler Center for Emerging & Neglected Diseases (CEND), which he co-founded.

Mr. Wheeler formed his initial connection with UCSB by funding research on urban water pollution led by Bren professor Patricia Holden, who is also a principal investigator at the UCSB Earth Research Institute

Mr. Wheeler, who was known for his broad and deep engagement with science — arising out of his own passion for knowledge and his interest in discoveries that could improve the world — learned about Professor Holden’s work after he read an article in Science News in summer 2011 about a research paper that her research group had authored. As someone who enjoyed studying and learning across disciplines, Mr. Wheeler would say later that he took particular note of the fact that Professor Holden is both a civil engineer and a microbiologist, a rare combination.

In February 2012, Professor Holden received a phone call at her office from Professor W. Geoffrey Owen, senior advisor to the Wheeler Center at UC Berkeley and a longtime associate of Mr. Wheeler’s. That call led to a phone introduction between Mr. Wheeler and Professor Holden and the first of what she recalls as “many marvelous conversations,” some of which related to Mr. Wheeler’s interest in funding her research. Eventually, Dr. Holden developed the concept for a research initiative, and after a meeting at UCSB, Mr. Wheeler began supporting a new program called the “Urban Water Environment” (UWE). 

He visited the Bren School several times over the next few years. Holden recalls those interludes as “warm events at which ‘the boots on the ground,’ as Mr. Wheeler referred to the student, postdoctoral, and staff researchers who were supported by his gift, were center stage.” The UWE, a scientific research program for improving urban water quality, came to be thanks to Mr. Wheeler’s generosity and the openness of the Bren School, including Dean Steve Gaines, whom Holden describes as being “very supportive” in providing what was needed to set up a new program.

"Sam's gift to the Bren School to support the Holden lab's work was incredibly important and perfectly fits the Bren School mission of working collaboratively across disciplines to solve environmental problems," said Dean Gaines. "We'll be forever grateful for the wisdom and vision behind his support."

At the time, Holden’s lab was not yet conducting research on the topic of shallow groundwater. “It was Mr. Wheeler’s suggestion that led us there,” she says. The UWE’s first focus was on understanding geospatial relationships between various types of municipal infrastructure (sanitary sewers and storm drains) and shallow-groundwater quality. The work involved collaborators from the University of Arizona, the US Geological Survey, and the University of Texas, El Paso. The study findings were published recently in the journal Water Research.

Explaining the strength and continuity of the UWE Program, Holden says, “It has opened so many new doors and raised so many new questions, and has deepened and broadened our relationships with public agencies, which, hopefully, can benefit from the results and approaches. I am ever grateful to Mr. Wheeler, not only because of his support for the UWE researchers, but also for his brilliant leadership in stimulating new ideas and directions in water-quality research.”

The Bren School sends its best wishes to the family and friends of this most-generous and visionary benefactor.