‘Carrying forward his commitment to the underprivileged’: UC Berkeley professor Kirk Smith dies at 73

Regents of the University of California/Courtesy

After decades of impact on his family, his community and the field of public health and environmental sciences, Dr. Kirk Smith died in Berkeley on Monday at the age of 73.

Smith was born in Berkeley in 1947 and grew up in the Piedmont area before moving to Sleepy Hollow in Marin County.

Smith was known in his neighborhood as smart and pleasant, according to his wife Joan Diamond, whom he met in childhood.

“He was, technically speaking, the boy next door,” Diamond said. “He was well known in the neighborhood school, the area, both for his intelligence and his creativity, building rockets, exploring, doing adventurous boy things.”

Smith graduated from UC Berkeley in 1968 as a double major in physics and astronomy. He also earned both his master’s of public health in environmental health sciences and his Ph.D. in biomedical and environmental health on campus.

In 1977, the same year he earned his Ph.D., Smith married Diamond on a pig farm in Healdsburg.

After years of marriage and a move to Hawaii, their daughter, Nadia Diamond-Smith, was born in 1984. During Diamond-Smith’s childhood, the family spent time in India and Nepal. Currently, Diamond-Smith works as an assistant professor at the UCSF School of Medicine in the Epidemiology and Biostatistics Department and Institute for Global Health Sciences.

“He was an incredible father,” Diamond-Smith said. He had an “amazing seriousness and goofiness that were somehow intertwined, finding something humorous to say in serious times and also seeing the important, thoughtful side of all of the normal, everyday moments.”

Diamond added that her daughter’s travels with Smith allowed Diamond-Smith to develop a love for other cultures as well as encouraged a commitment to making the world a better place.

In 1995, Smith joined campus faculty, where he eventually became a professor of global environmental health at the School of Public Health. He worked across disciplines, teaching classes in global public health and global air quality, and a special course on environmental disasters in post-apocalyptic fiction.

“He really wanted to discuss big-picture questions, and how you change policy and how you institute new laws and regulations that will end up improving people’s lives,” said UC Berkeley assistant professor-in-residence Jay Graham, whom Smith mentored. “He was always getting me to kind of open my mind to bigger ideas.”

Smith was the world’s first to recognize household air pollution as a major risk to personal health and climate impacts, according to his website, and he performed field studies around the world.

John Holdren, Smith’s doctoral advisor on campus and the former director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, called Smith the “founding father” of indoor air pollution studies in a statement.

Throughout his career, Smith received more than 15 high honors for research and scientific achievement, according to his website. In 1984, Smith was named “One of America’s 100 Brightest Young Scientists” by editors and scientific advisers of Science Digest. In 2008, he received the campus Chancellor’s Award for Research in the Public Interest.

Smith shared a Nobel Peace Prize in 2007 as an active participant on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. At the time of his death, Smith had published about 400 peer-reviewed articles and books on environmental health.

“Generations of Kirk’s former students are now leading environmental institutions and initiatives around the world while carrying forward his commitment to the underprivileged,” said Justin Remais, division head of environmental health sciences at the UC Berkeley School of Public Health and campus associate professor, in an email. “Their efforts benefit daily from his work.”

Smith is survived by his wife, daughter and two grandchildren.

Contact Skylar De Paul at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @skylardepaul.