UC Berkeley professor emeritus Gareth Thomas dies at age 81

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UC Berkeley professor emeritus Gareth Thomas, known as a leader in the field of electron microscopy, died Feb. 7. He was 81.

Thomas grew up in Wales and obtained a doctorate in metallurgy at Cambridge University in 1955. He brought his knowledge and skills as an electron microscopist to UC Berkeley when he joined the faculty in 1960.

In 1976, he, along with Robert Glaeser and John Cowley, proposed the creation of a National Center for Electron Microscopy at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and oversaw its construction. After the NCEM was officially established in 1983, he served as its director until 1991.

“Through hard work and talent of persuasion, he founded, mostly through federal backing, an electron microscopy center which soon became the top one in the country,” said Didier de Fontaine, longtime friend and colleague of Thomas.

According to Uli Dahmen, director of the NCEM and Thomas’ former student, Thomas’ vision and dedication laid the groundwork for the NCEM’s many successes, which include surpassing barriers of microscopic resolution, down to the level of half an Angstrom, smaller than the diameter of a single hydrogen atom.

“He put Berkeley on the map and made it a worldwide center for electron microscopy that attracted scientists from all over the world,” Dahmen said. “What set him apart was the fact that he was a microscopist with a big vision, and that’s how he was able to convince other people of its importance.”

Thomas also achieved the rare honor of being elected into both the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering in 1983 and 1982, respectively. In 2009, Thomas was elected a fellow at the Microscopy Society of America.

In addition to his research at the NCEM and an extensive list of publications, Thomas was also a dedicated professor. He advised and graduated more than 100 UC Berkeley graduate students and in 2006 was named professor emeritus.

“He trained a generation of students who went on to be leaders in the field of materials research,” said Mark Asta, professor and chair of the materials science and engineering department, in an email.

De Fontaine remembers Thomas as not only a devoted scientist but also an avid rugby player in his early years in Berkeley.

“He was a hard-driving, fiery Welshman who in fact had played a mean game of rugby as a young man,” de Fontaine said.

Dahmen described Thomas, who was known for being competitive and driven, as “the life of the party.”

“It was always a pleasure to share a bottle from his collection of fine wines,” said UC Berkeley professor emeritus James Evans, a former colleague and friend of Thomas.

Thomas is survived by his second wife and his son, Julian Thomas, from his first marriage. He will be laid to rest in Wales.

Contact Kathleen Tierney at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @kathleentierney.