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Tom’s America

February 9, 2021

President Altieri remembers his late mentor Thomas Scott Edgington

Thomas Scott Edgington died in La Jolla, California, on January 22, 2021 from heart disease. He was a towering figure in vascular biology and a titan in molecular medicine with most of his career spent at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California. Tom contributed five decades of groundbreaking scientific advances, innovation and entrepreneurship: his work on tissue factor rewrote the narrative about coagulation in biology and medicine. Tom did not want an obituary. Maybe he thought that obituaries read as words in the past tense, abstract. In fact, Tom was never in the past tense or in the abstract. He was the present, in flesh and bones.

I was one of Tom’s postdoctoral fellows. I arrived at LAX on January 23, 1987 with the usual immigrant’s two suitcases. Two things I remember of that evening. A giant American flag hanging in the arrival hall and the pre-9/11 immigration officer who looked at my Italian passport and visa papers from Scripps and asked: What do you do for these guys? Research, I said. And research it was. Tom’s laboratory was an exhilarating forge of science and medicine around the clock. His passion was infectious, his dedication, inspiring and his hunger for knowledge, insatiable.

And yet, the Tom that stayed with me for thirty-five years was something else. His larger-than-life figure and the kaleidoscope of his lab taught me something else. As an immigrant, he taught me America. An America that was not just big cars, sheriffs and B52s. Tom was the living emblem of what that giant flag at LAX meant. Tom’s America was inclusive and welcoming. His laboratory had people of all walks of life, skin colors, religions and accents: everybody had a place. It never mattered where you came from. None of us attended the right schools or had the right connections (I doubt Tom even knew what a college legacy admission is). We were all self-starters and that’s exactly what Tom’s America loved: you are here now, he used to say, your merit is who you are.

Tom’s America was the stuff of movies and politicians: an America of chances, of opportunities. But Tom was no actor, and, believe me, he was no politician. That America truly lived in him and came to us. Unfiltered. In flesh and bones. We too could be who we were. Even if we spoke with an accent or never understood if the guy with the bat plays with or against the guy with the glove. Tom’s America was one of risk-taking, hard work and never give up. Not save anything for the swim back. Undaunted. The science was a microcosm of that America: if you did the experiment enough times and the controls are there, you go for it. But it’s against what people believe. Leave the word believe to religion, not science. And, so, Tom was never shy of standing his ground, of speaking his mind (and he always had a lot to say). Because there was always something joyous in that America anyway, where we take ourselves seriously, but not too seriously. Like when he showed us his 1960-era convertible saying that he had to buy that car back then to load up all the cheerleaders. And he laughed happily saying that.

It is not easy to say what we leave behind, what is our legacy. Maybe it’s the patients that we treated. Or the papers that we published, some of them will last, maybe. Tom left behind an ideal for us immigrants to see. He was not trying to convince anyone: just showing how he lived that ideal and how that ideal can live. So that we could learn from it. And perpetuate that America. At the symposium honoring his retirement from Scripps, Zaverio Ruggeri showed in his last slide how he saw Tom. It was a giant, millions of colors, Fourth of July firework. It could not have been more appropriate. And we, the immigrants, could not have been more grateful.

Dario C. Altieri, M.D.
President and CEO, The Wistar Institute
Director, The Wistar Institute Cancer Center
Philadelphia, PA 19106