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Obituary: James A. Smith

By Stacey E. Blau
Associate News Editor

James A. Smith, a physics graduate student and Harvard Medical School student, died from a brain tumor on Jan. 31, according to his roommate Joseph Harrington PhD '94.

Smith had brain cancer for eight years, according Neil M. Donahue PhD '91, who had been Smith's roommate since the two were undergraduates at Brown University. Smith underwent chemotherapy, radiation treatment, and surgery which "bought him eight years," Harrington said.

At the beginning of the summer, symptoms of Smith's cancer, which had appeared to be in remission, began to reappear, Harrington said. Smith suffered from dizzy spells and loss of balance; he visited a neurologist and had magnetic resonance images taken weekly.

Smith checked into the Massachusetts General Hospital during the last week of January. He was diagnosed with a brain tumor located at the top of the medulla, making it impossible to operate, Harrington said. "The surgery would have killed him," Harrington said, and Smith already had undergone as much radiation therapy as he could.

Smith was administered chemotherapy but did not respond to the treatment. He fell into a coma on Jan. 30 and died the next day, Harrington said.

Funeral services were held at Brandeis University on Feb. 2.

Smith was a PhD student in the Department of Physics, but he worked primarily in the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory and was pursuing a degree in medicine through the Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology. He was working to finish medical school in May and his PhD in two or three years, Harrington said.

His work at MIT dealt with vision and the functioning of the retina and pattern recognition. The James Andrew Smith Memorial Fund will be set up to fund the continuation his research.

Since Smith knew that it was possible that cancer could reappear at any time, he tried to "get the most out of what he left in terms of time," Harrington said. Each summer, Smith would travel to a different country for a month. In recent years, he visited Bali, Indonesia, and China.

Smith enjoyed outdoor activities like camping, hiking, rock-climbing, skiing, and frisbee playing. He was also a supporter of cooperative living and started a co-op with his former roommates where he lived up until his death, Donahue said.

"It didn't have to be physics, it didn't have to be medicine," Harrington said of Smith's varied interests. "He loved to explore the way things work and the way things ought to work," Harrington said.

Smith also played the guitar and was a fan of folk music and blues, Donahue said. Rory Block, a musician who Smith admired, visited Smith during his last stay in the hospital and played for him, Donahue said.

Harrington said that Smith reacted calmly upon hearing the doctor's news that the tumor "completely ignored the chemotherapy" and that Smith was going to die. Smith shook the doctor's hand upon hearing the news. His attitude was "this is my lot, and I'm taking it,"' Harrington said.

"The thing that was most exciting to him was solving puzzles," Donahue said. Rather than doing things on a grand scale, Smith preferred problem solving and puzzles. "That was the thing that really made him tick."