Campus professor emeritus and toxicology expert John Casida dies at 88

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Berkeley News/Courtesy

John Casida, an internationally recognized authority on the function of pesticides and their effects on humans, died of a heart attack in his sleep Saturday at age 88.

Casida was a campus professor emeritus of environmental science, policy and management and of nutritional sciences and toxicology for 50 years, before stepping down from teaching in 2014. He was also the founding director of the Environmental Chemistry and Toxicology Laboratory, where he continued to conduct research and mentor graduate students after he stopped teaching. Casida is survived by his wife Kati Casida, who is an artist and sculptor, as well as his sons Mark and Eric Casida and two grandchildren.

Sarjeet Gill — Casida’s former student and the distinguished professor of molecular, cell and systems biology at UC Riverside — said Casida was “the preeminent toxicologist in the world” and added that he changed the way people study the mechanism of toxicity.

“Through his work, we now have pesticides that are far safer for the environment and for man,” said Bruce Hammock, Casida’s former student and distinguished professor of entomology at UC Davis.

Much of Casida’s research focused on studying natural and synthetic pesticides. He aimed to understand how pesticides kill insects, how they are metabolized by humans and how they affect the environment.

Hammock studied in Casida’s lab for four years. He said Casida’s research lead to breakthroughs in many areas.

“I just had an absolutely delightful time in his lab,” Hammock said. “Really bright, hardworking people attract other bright, hardworking people, and it was an exciting place to be.”

Casida found that the botanical insecticide ryanodine blocks an ion channel for calcium, now known as the ryanodine receptor, which is important for neuron and muscle cell function. Hammock added that the ryanodine receptor is now the basis for a number of pharmaceuticals that combat heart failure and neurological illness.

Outside of academia, UC Berkeley associate professor of chemistry, molecular and cell biology, and nutritional sciences and toxicology Daniel Nomura said Casida enjoyed photography, collecting South American pottery and Greek folk dancing with his wife.

“He was an amazing mentor and very passionate about science,” Nomura said. “He instilled his curiosity about pesticides in his students — trained them to think critically and to choose the best scientific questions to pursue.”

Nomura added that he will miss brainstorming ideas with Casida around the chalkboard in his office.

Casida received numerous honors for his research, including being elected to the United States’ National Academy of Sciences in 1991 and to the London-based Royal Society in 1998. He also won many awards for his work, including the first International Award for Research in Pesticide Chemistry in 1971 and the 1978 Spencer Award for Research in Agricultural and Food Chemistry by the American Chemical Society.

“(Casida) was wonderful,” Hammock said. “He came in early, stayed late, provided a great deal of freedom and was always inspiring.”

Contact Amanda Bradford at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @amandabrad_uc.