Obituary: Sam Toma / Scientist with passion for religion, cooking

Died March 18, 2013

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A life built around the scientific method never stopped Sam Toma from exploring the immeasurable concepts of spirituality and the human soul.

Mr. Toma, a former U.S. government scientist who was integral in mine safety and X-ray technology advances, died Monday after suffering a stroke. He was 78.

Born in Baghdad, Iraq, Mr. Toma made his way to America by the time he was 16 years old. An intellectual with interests ranging from food to chemistry, he approached a dean at Boston College shortly after arriving in the city to help him find the subject in which he eventually would make a mark.

"He went up to the dean and said 'What's your hardest major?' The dean said chemistry, so he took it," said his oldest son, Mark, of Los Angeles.

After attending Boston College for undergraduate studies, he married Irene MacEachern before earning a doctorate in physical chemistry from the University of Notre Dame. Upon graduation, he took a position with Sylvania in Towanda, Bradford County, where he developed film that helped physicians take high-speed heart X-rays.

He left Sylvania in the late 1970s for a position with the Mine Safety and Health Administration in Pittsburgh and moved to Bethel Park, where his family remains. His research surrounded filters to help prevent black lung disease and emphysema among miners, but one of his greatest discoveries was finding that a combination of methane and other gases can lead to mine explosions.

Although the discovery was one of the highlights of his career, it also helped lead to its abrupt end, said Mark Toma. He said politics and other delays prevented the agency from using his discovery to create safety policies, and Mr. Toma's frustration with the situation led him eventually to take early retirement in his late 40s.

After settling into retirement in the early 1980s, Mr. Toma began to pursue his interest in the intersection of science and religion full time. He gave seminars locally and engaged family and friends on the topic whenever he had an opportunity.

"He thought practicing science with a Christian spirit could improve the world. And it wasn't just an idea to him, he lived that way," his son said.

Ralph Keenan, a neighbor for almost 30 years, said he saw how committed Mr. Toma was to the topic while listening in on one of his seminars. But Mr. Keenan also made a point to share Mr. Toma's other passion.

"He was a tremendous chef; he could cook anything" Mr. Keenan said. "He wasn't a one-track-mind kind of a person, although the depth of his thinking with religion and science was far beyond any of us."

And although he was described as somewhat reserved, he never shied away when someone needed help. Marge Pinkney, a neighbor and friend, said one of her best memories of Mr. Toma was when he kept her calm during her husband's medical crisis.

"When my husband had a stroke and was lying on the ground, I ran over to get Irene because I felt like I needed somebody to be with me. She wasn't there, but Sam said, 'Do you want me to come?' Then he came over and waited until my husband was in the ambulance. I was always so grateful to him for that," she said.

That sense of compassion and generosity translated throughout a marriage that started in 1958, Irene Toma said. Mr. Toma was a great husband and father who always put his family first and made sure to maintain ties with his brothers and sisters in Iraq, she said.

In addition to his wife and son, Mr. Toma is survived by a another son, Jeff Toma of Canonsburg; two daughters, Therese Eldin of Denver and Diane Toma of Washington, D.C,; a granddaughter; a brother, Ghanim Toma; and two sisters, Madeline Stephan and Samira Bodagh.

Funeral services were held Friday. The family asks contributions be made to the Little Sisters of the Poor or the Jesuit Mission.

obituaries

Deborah M. Todd: dtodd@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1652.


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