Piero P. Foa --- Eulogies
by Richard Katz
by Mahmoud Masoud
by Richard Foa
by Jason Foa
by Joseph Dunbar
P. Foa --- Obituaries
to Richard Katz's home page
Richard Foa Katz, grandson to Piero P. Foa
Thank you for being here.
We’re together today to commemorate the remarkable life of Piero
Foa. In a strictly biological sense, Piero is no longer with
us---his body having served him well for 94 years. In another
very real sense, however, Piero lives on. He lives on in each of
us, in the ways that he touched our lives, inspired, challenged and
taught us. Many here can recall a moment of interaction with
Piero that left a strong impression, that came to symbolize an
important lesson or ideal which has become deeply engrained in our
character. It is my great fortune that there have been many such
moments in my life. In celebration of Piero’s life that has
ended, and in evidence of his life that continues, I would like to
share three of these moments.
As young children, my brother David and I traveled to the Italian Alps
with Piero and Naomi, to the town where he spent many summers of his
youth. There, Piero told us of his adventures collecting
mushrooms in the forests and climbing the towering, glaciated
peaks. The bravery and exhilarating freedom that was evident in
these stories fascinated me. A story that he found especially
amusing described a large aluminum statue of the Madonna bolted to a
rocky summit and repeatedly struck by lightning, creating a wide hole
in the top of its head. Twenty years later, David and I returned with
Naomi and Piero to that town to climb the same peaks that he had
ascended more than 50 years earlier. The views from the summits
were as timeless as the exhilaration, fear and humility that we felt
being there. From that moment we shared with Piero a special
understanding of the awesome power of nature, and of human
determination, that can only be learned in the mountains.
When Piero decided that we should build a tree-house, none of us
envisioned the large and elaborate structure that he proceeded to
design: free-standing high off the ground, with a peaked roof and
wrap-around deck. He drew up plans and organized the “Tree House
Construction Crew”, a group consisting of him, David and me, and our
friends. We built it together, from the cement pilings to the
roof shingles. And I remember distinctly a realization that I had
at the time: Piero is a doctor, not a carpenter or an architect, and
yet he launched this project without hesitation or misstep. He
saw no barriers to what he could understand, create, and accomplish
with careful effort. As I grew up I came to recognize the amazing
breadth of Piero’s knowledge. His confidence in the power of the
intellect and his undiscriminating and wide-ranging curiosity set an
example that I struggle to follow today.
Piero was an enthusiastic and dedicated scientist and
teacher. His passion for a scientific understanding of nature has
inspired me for as long as I remember knowing him. Together we
built volcanoes at the beach, collected fossils, looked through the
microscope at cells, studied the anatomy and physiology of frogs, and
experimented with magnets. The chemistry lab that he set up in
his basement was a magical place where we made soap, poured molten lead
into moulds and filled balloons with hydrogen gas. I remember
sitting at the table in Piero and Naomi’s kitchen after a basement
chemistry session when I was about 10 years old, learning the meaning
and value of Avogadro’s number. Do you remember where you were
when you first learned about Avogadro’s number? Throughout my studies I
have learned from good teachers, but no-one has aroused my curiosity,
inspired me or excited me with the thrill of science as Piero
did. That inspiration is deeply engrained in me, entwined with
his memory. It is embodied in my doctoral thesis, to be defended
on Monday, which is lovingly dedicated to him.
There are myriad ways that Piero’s influence has shaped those gathered
here, and many others scattered across the globe. He lives on in
us through the things that we learned from him and in the ways that he
changed us. Piero’s lifelong connection with the mountains and the
lessons they teach, his unbounded and tenacious curiosity, and his
passion for scientific inquiry stand out as important influences for
me. Above all, however, Piero’s love for and dedication to his
family and friends, and his respect for his colleagues, his students
and, indeed, for all of humanity are what ultimately made him a great
man. And these, above all, are what we commemorate today. I
will miss Piero as my grandfather and my teacher, but as my hero and
inspiration, he is alive and well.
Remarks by Helen
S. Katz, daughter to Piero P. Foa
Thank you for being here with us this morning to remember my dad and to
celebrate his extraordinary life. We want to share our memories
and feelings with each other and with you, honoring his wish for a
secular memorial gathering. Piero identified strongly as a Jew,
but he was not religious. Several of us will make remarks about
what dad meant to us and to those lucky enough to share his life, his
attention, his love, his creative talents, his boundless curiosity and
his passion for teaching.
On behalf of the family, I will give a brief chronology of his life and
then talk about Piero as a husband, father, grandfather and great
I will start with his last day first, because dad did not plan to die
last Saturday night. He spent part of Saturday at his computer,
continuing work on his memoirs. On his tumultuous desk were
recent notes about lectures to the medical and graduate students for
the coming semester at Wayne. At the top of a current pile was a
draft of remarks he planned to deliver this evening, accepting an honor
he at the annual meeting of the Dante Alighieri Society, an Italian
cultural society that fed his Italian soul. His heart stopped,
quietly ending his life, as he and mom were getting ready to leave for
Notwithstanding his great frustration with a body that was not
cooperating; he was active and engaged with his family, with science,
with friends and with colleagues – writing, planning and exchanging
ideas. During his final year, dad was wheel-chair bound, unable to
shower or dress independently and in failing health with need for ever
increasing amounts of sleep and ever decreasing amounts of food.
Even so, he had us convinced that he might just be immortal.
And, he is. His influence on our lives and his very specific and
personal love for each one of us will never leave us.
Dad was born in 1911. His 94 years reflected the history of a
turbulent world. As a child during WWI with a father who was a
physician and an officer in the Italian army, he and his sister,
Ornella, were separated from their parents who were at the front.
His father, Carlo Foa, and grand-father, Pio Foa, were both physicians
and professors at the University of Milano Medical school. Their
scientific research inspired his passion for research and teaching and
set the bar against which he often measured his accomplishments and
failures. During WWII, Italy’s anti-Semitic laws stripped both
him and his father of their university positions, engulfing his entire
family in a maelstrom of a world gone mad. While the rest of his
family fled to Brazil for the duration of the war, returning to Italy
at its end, dad traveled to the United States as his refuge from the
Fascists and Mussolini. Dad was fiercely proud of his Italian
heritage. My brother, Richard, will talk about the profound
influences these events had on his life. For now, I just mention them,
to bring you to the part where he met my mom and started our small but
Piero met Naomi shortly after he arrived in the U.S. in 1939.
After a brief stint on a student visa at Yale, he went to Ann Arbor,
where he did post-doctoral research at the University of
Michigan. In his laboratory was a beautiful blue eyed American
Jewish biochemist named Naomi Levin. Those were interesting
times, as he, Naomi and the others who worked in dad’s lab became his
regular research guinea pigs, enduring special diets, frequent
blood-draws and urine tests – because rat’s just can’t tell you how
This was an unorthodox beginning to a beautiful love affair of more
than 64 years. Naomi and Piero were married in 1941, a year after
they met. The United States became dad’s adopted country, and he
loved his life here.
Mom and dad were inseparable in their work, their extensive worldwide
travels and in their home lives. She ably endured some of his
less loveable traits.
He restarted his faculty career at the Chicago Medical School, moving
to Detroit to become the Director of Sinai Hospital’s research
department and a professor of physiology at Wayne State University
Medical School. Some of his research in diabetes and
endocrinology led to seminal works that garnered him international
Mom and dad traveled, and dad lectured on every continent. They
spent a year helping to establish the curriculum and laboratory
protocols at the medical school in Lagos, Nigeria. They traveled
through the back country of pre-Taliban Afganistan with gun-toting
drivers and guides. Together, they traveled to international
meetings as guests of state in both the Sha’s Iran and in India.
They went as honored visitors to Japan at the invitation of dad’s
former students. Dad’s life was rich with international friends,
students and colleagues. Holiday cards have always arrived from
every part of the world.
Enter the kids – Dad was nothing if not a nurturing father to my
brother and to me, although also a bit of the “infallible” patriarch,
like his father and his father’s father. He was, at times, a pain.
I don’t have specific memories of his particular brand of discipline –
probably because I was so good, but I do have many memories of the
times he taught us about the wonders of the world. Nothing was
insignificant, and nothing too ambitious. He engaged us in his
exploration of everything from springs, mousetraps and propulsion (he
made a cannon for my brother with a mousetrap and toilet paper roll,
who proceeded to use it to shoot a sharpened pencil at my derriere) to
experiments with chemical actions and reactions. He found ways to
demonstrate our physiological processes (I will spare you the gory
details), and he got us to wonder about the relationships among the
Our house was refuge to some of dad’s most beloved laboratory animals,
including the dog that became a Foa for many years – Dog “S”, renamed
Stanley when he joined the family. Animals instinctively loved
dad and responded to his touch, because he loved them. One of his
favorites was Sweet Pee (that’s spelled P E E), who was a diabetic
goat. All of our subsequent pets knew his special
He extended his love for us to all of our school and neighborhood
friends, welcoming them to any meal, tree house sleep-over or
“shocktail” party (his idea that we have sleep-overs with friends to
watch Shock Theater.
Dad delighted in our every step and accomplishment, and he suffered
over our puckish missteps and our setbacks.
He welcomed Marty and Lin into his family with unqualified love.
He gained two more children. If he missed a trick as a dad or
father-in-law, he certainly didn’t as a grandfather.
With the arrival 4 grandsons, Jason, Rob, Rich and Dave, and their
first cousins, Jeremy and Kaleo; Piero discovered the center of the
earth. His level of connection, and again, that very
individualized expression of love, met each one of them right where
they were at any given time in their lives.
He created spaces and environments that challenged them intellectually
and creatively. He engaged their friends in building a tree house
and pithing frogs. His basement was a mad-scientist’s laboratory
of bubbling test-tubes, dangerous tools, bunson-burners, snakes, rats,
bugs and creative art. He delighted in their poison-ivy carpeted
fort and in their capture of garden snakes. Blood was part of
He taught me that it was fine (no – actually good) if the kids got
cuts, burns, bites or bruises while using sharp instruments or doing
stupid things. Injury in the pursuit of learning and
adventure was just fine – nothing that a hug and a band aid, cast or a
mysteriously concocted ointment couldn’t handle.
He taught his boys how to build real igloos in the dead of winter;
smoke and ash-spewing sand volcanoes on the beach in the summer; wine
in the fall; and tad-pole to frog or toad environments in the
spring. Their friends thought he was cool.
Piero joined his children and grandchildren in skiing and horseback
riding. It was a particular point of pride that he got free ski
passes, because of his age.
As his grandsons outgrew some of his mad-scientist capers, he welcomed
their changes, their growth and their new friends. He understood
their adolescent distancing and moodiness, and delighted in their
return, recreating new adult relationships with each one of them.
His was thrilled when Jason and Rob married Kori and Molly,
respectively. They enriched his family and his life. And,
you would think that Jason and Kori had their two beautiful daughters,
Maggie and Paige, just for him and mom.
More than cool grandfather, dad was an inspiration and a muse to my
boys. His influence on Rich and Dave’s chosen paths is evident,
as they are pursuing careers in science and medicine. Until dad’s
last moment, they shared their educational insights and accomplishments
with him in frequent calls and visits.
We have wonderful memories of the life he shared with us. I will
Mahmoud Masoud, friend to Piero P. Foa
The Piero I knew – a loving tribute
It was in 1983 when I first met Piero and it didn't take us long to
strike a friendship that remained healthy and strong to the very end.
Perhaps it was our common ancestral homeland that contributed to the
cementing of that bond, perhaps it was something else that defies
explanation; but he and I knew full well that we were close friends.
Early on he showed a genuine interest in me and would seek every
opportunity to go beyond formalities and delve into substance. This
doesn't mean that our conversations were always smooth and amiable. O
no! We had our moments and as a first hand account, there were times
when I heard thunder in his voice and saw streaks of lightning in his
eyes, not to mention a few select swearing words—sometimes mild,
sometimes well seasoned! But we always parted with a firm handshake and
a kiss on the cheek!
It is not for me to talk about Piero the scientist because that's
beyond me; but I was amazed at the extent of his knowledge of history,
which was indeed historic! He would cite events and incidents from the
history of the Middle East with names and figures, adding his own
analysis and conclusions. He was simply amazing! Unrepeatable! Piero
was a brilliant conversationalist who could tackle almost any subject
with a natural ease. And there was enough of the child in him to
demonstrate now and then a naughty trick or to appreciate a
characteristic joke. And yes, he was so original in telling me how he
missed me whenever I was absent from a family gathering. Well, how did
he do it? He would call me and say "You are a bum" or you are this and
that for not coming, and then qualify his epithets by saying: "I missed
Well, now it is my turn to say: I miss you Piero!
Earlier I mentioned kisses on the cheeks, and it is a fact that the
last one he and I exchanged was the loudest ever because we
unconsciously were saying good bye to each other! I will always
remember you, dear friend, and treasure your memory deep in my heart.
Your abiding friend,
Richard Foa, son to Piero P. Foa
Helen (Katz), Marty (Katz), Richard (Katz), Jason (Foa), and Joe
Dunbar have spoken to remind us of WHO Piero was – a wonderful and
devoted husband, father, grandfather, teacher and colleague…a man, I
might add, faithful to his legacy as the son and grandson of equally
distinguished scientists and teachers. I would like to now say a
little about my perceptions of how he became who he was.
It is rightly said of American kids, perhaps more than Europeans, that
we strive (often without success) to be what are parents are not.
Today, in my remarks, I will make no effort to distance myself from
Piero. He was a man of great complexity and of some profound
paradoxes. We’re alike in many ways…(he would I think be pleased
to hear that confession)…and he influenced me profoundly.
Piero could be compared to a diamond – with many facets and able to
shine brilliantly, but not without flaws, Piero was certainly
1) A powerful intellect
2) A productive research scientist
3) A committed teacher and
4) A generous man
But, while these characteristics are found in many, father was a unique
blend of these elements. What were the roots of this uniqueness?
He was Italian…born into a position of comfort among well-to-do
European intelligentsia. The predominant theme surrounding his
youth, aside from education in science, was Italian nationalism.
Italy’s nationalism, unfortunately, turned into a hateful fascism with
the promulgation of racial laws and then the expulsion of Jews just as
Piero prepared to enter the academic world for which he was
groomed. This was, I think, the pivotal experience of his life –
leaving him with bitterness, disappointment, and a profound sense of
loss…a loss that, especially in recent years, he sought to recover by a
more constant and explicit reassertion of his Italian identity.
As a father, Piero on countless occasions reflected that this
experience was in fact a personal blessing since it gave him the
opportunity to meet Naomi and to create the life in America that he
truly enjoyed for the next 66 years…the life that we are here to
remember and to celebrate.
Piero was Jewish. This is not without irony. Recall
that although of Jewish ancestry, he came from a family that placed
nationalism above religious ancestry. Mussolini, tragically, had
exactly the opposite attitude – identifying Italian patriots who were
Jewish as Jews only. This was the crucible in which Piero’s
Jewish identity was forged. He would comment frequently that he
came from a country where anti-Semitism was law but where he never
encountered an anti-Semitic citizen to a country where religious
tolerance was law but anti-Semitism was found everywhere. So he
arrived in 1939 on the eve of America’s entry into WWII and found
himself embraced by the Jewish community…where he remained.
Piero was not exactly a man of faith. More accurately he was to
the end an atheist. Some of my most vivid memories are of
listening to him argue against the existence of God. He argued of
course from a platform of science and he argued with passion and
conviction. This was no joking matter…not a polite debate with
proper structure and points awarded for logical argument. His
passion came from a profound moral sensitivity. Having
experienced the total and incomprehensible moral collapse of his world,
I think he felt that the existence of a supreme being meant the
existence of a supreme betrayer of all that is humanly important.
Of course, Piero was a scientist. This was his core identity…the
essential Piero. Not something he chose to do in response to
other social or intellectual pressures. Science was his consuming
passion. It defined his approach to the world and, as many here
know, he was pretty good at it too. I won’t enumerate his
achievements in science. I haven’t time now nor the ability to
give them their proper weight. But along with those who have
spoken already, I would mention his related passion for teaching.
In this I feel great pride…for Piero was a consummate teacher –
creative, resourceful, always prepared, utterly respectful of his
students regardless of their age and level, and, at his peak, uniquely
able to translate complexity and create understanding. His work
as a scientist and as a teacher gave Piero his public identity and
sustained him to the end. And I believe they sustained him
because they were unambiguously good things – indeed the highest forms
of human activity.
Never terribly introspective, my father in recent years allowed
glimpses at the many uncertainties and self doubts that I think he’d
kept buried for most of his life. These revelations I feel
heightened his great humanity. He had a powerful desire for
immortality…a tough wish for an atheist. I would suggest to him
that his immortality was in a sense assured – he needed only look at
his grandchildren and great grandchildren and think of generations to
follow. But in his version, I believe he longed for more public
acknowledgment and long remembrance of his contributions – not just to
a great pyramid of scientific knowledge but for the wisdom he sought to
And so I will remember Piero, my father, the teacher who gave to so
many of us here a little wisdom that we can each, in turn, transmit to
others…so it may be shared for eternity.
I want to thank everyone who has come today, and to acknowledge many
who wished to be here but could not come whether due to reasons of
health or distance or conflicting commitment. By your presence…by
showing he is already missed and will be long remembered, you satisfy
Piero’s desire to be among us forever. Thank You.
Remarks by Jason Foa, grandson to Piero Foa
For those of you that I haven’t met, my name is Jason Foa, I’m Piero’s
grandson. Like my family that’s been speaking, I have a lot of
great memories of Piero. I remember some of the experiments
in the basements where you’d kind of watch half in wonder of what was
going to happen next – if something was going to blow up or catch on
fire. I remember skiing and trying to keep with him. I
remember going fishing on their little lake. But it wasn’t until
very recently when I realized how lucky I was that Piero was in my
life. While my wife and I have two young daughters, we have
been visiting Detroit a couple of times in the last few years and to
watch Piero interact with my daughters, his great-grandchildren, has
been really enlightening for me because I’ve seen the love he shared
with them, and the kindness, and the challenges he’s presented to
them. And it’s made me realize how much that was a part of my
life and how much I relied on that and how much I learned from that,
without ever really knowing it was happening. So, I feel very
fortunate to have had Piero in my life and I hope that I’ll be able to
share that same kind of love with my families as my parents, and my
brother, and my cousins have as well. Thank you all for
coming. I really, I was talking with my wife a couple of days ago
and we were talking about how it was really hard to feel too sad
because he did live such a full life and he touched so many people that
it’s hard to, envy’s not the right word, but it’s hard not to aspire to
live a life like that and to live as completely as he did. Thank
you all for coming, we’re very fortunate to have known Piero.
Remarks by Joe Dunbar, Collegue to Piero
First of all, I would like to extend my
condolences to the Foa family from the Department of Physiology, Wayne
State University, and myself. Dr. Foa and I had a long and
productive relationship. He took pride in this relationship and
often said the relationship had come full circle. It started in
1967 when I was his student, later he was my boss, then we were faculty
colleagues and lastly I was his boss. I have many very fun
memories at each point along the way of our relationship.
In the academic/university community the
accomplishments of a faculty are usually judged based on three tenets:
scholarship, teaching, and service or the proverbial triple
threat. In Dr. Foa’s case, he was a quadruple or five-fold threat
because you could add the tenets of colleague and friend.
As a scholar his contributions were significant and
numerous. He was the first to definitely identify the hormone
glucagon. And, for these studies, he was given the title of “the
father of glucagon”. For many the significant important discoveries can
go unnoticed because they are so universally accepted. Dr. Foa
was the first to demonstrate that glucose stimulated insulin
secretion. And, in textbooks it reads simply that, “glucose
stimulates insulin secretion”, no ambiguity, simply an accepted
fact. Since his official retirement he has continued to have many
research ideas and loved to discuss them with colleagues in journal
club or lab meetings. One of the latest was his idea for a mosquito
repellent that he convinced many of us to work on.
As a teacher, Dr. Foa worked tirelessly to
constantly be an outstanding teacher. Although the records say
that he retired in 1985, he continued to teach in many venues to the
present. He volunteered to teach in elementary and middle school,
and continued to teach our medical and graduate students. He was
always revising his notes and lectures to make them better. And,
just recently Dr. Foa was bugging the course director of the medical
curriculum where he wanted last year’s student reviews so that he could
make changes in his notes and improve them further. Dr. Foa was
instrumental in putting together the Endocrine Unit that still stands
as a model for medical school teaching. For all of these
accomplishments, he received the “Lamp Award” that is given by the
students to the person that they consider as their most outstanding and
influential teacher. Many of us can only wish for this award.
Dr. Foa provided extensive service to Wayne State
University in a number of arenas, from serving as Chairman of the
Department of Physiology to numerous committees on curriculum and
As a colleague, Dr. Foa was always interested in
what fellow faculty were doing. He was always willing to make
phone calls to promote faculty or help students find positions.
As he read the specific literature, he would clip articles and give
them to you, just in case you missed it. It would surprise most
faculty or students that he was knowledgeable about their work and
interested as well. He served as an unofficial advisory to many.
As a friend, Dr. Foa was always concerned about your
well being, and wanted to know if all was well. When I informed
my daughter of Dr. Foa’s passing, her first statements were that “she
always remembered that he and Naomi were always there for many of the
important events in her life, graduations, birthdays and the like.”
Dr. Foa had a number of sayings, we called Foa-isms.
His capacity to translate many distasteful or awkward activities into a
lyrical Italian saying always captured the moment. For all of the
previously stated reasons and characteristics, Dr. Foa, he will surely
be missed by all.