It is with great sadness that we announce the passing of James Patrick O’Neil on August 7 at age 55 from complications related to heart failure. A staff scientist in the Molecular Biophysics and Integrated Bioimaging (MBIB) Division, Jim worked at Berkeley Lab for 24 years. He passed away surrounded by family and friends and will be dearly missed.
Jim was an outstanding radiochemist who made many important contributions to the field of nuclear medicine and to the Positron Emission Tomography (PET) imaging program at the Lab. He obtained his BS degree in chemistry from California Polytechnic University in 1985 and a PhD in synthetic organic chemistry from the University of Utah in 1991. He undertook postdoctoral fellowships in organic chemistry and radiochemistry at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign from 1991-1993 and at Berkeley Lab beginning in 1994. He was promoted to a scientist position at the Lab in 1995.
Jim published on topics related to the synthesis of radiopharmaceuticals (radioactive compounds used for diagnostic or therapeutic purposes) and the use of these in PET imaging applications. He assisted with the preparation of radioactive carbon-11 gas that was piped down the Hill and ionized in the 88-inch ion source to create a radioactive ion beam, and applied positron emitting radiotracers to study soil contamination and plant biology. However, it was Jim’s amazing knowledge of cyclotron function, targetry, and automation that spanned the fields of nuclear chemistry and engineering that made him a standout among his peers. He was the sort of “hands on” person who could literally take apart and fix a cyclotron or design and build an automated synthesis apparatus. Jim single-handedly kept the biomedical cyclotron running for 23 years without any maintenance agreement from the manufacturer.
He was instrumental in siting the first small medical cyclotron in the Biomedical Isotope Facility at Berkeley Lab in 1995. In 2005 he took over the leadership of the radiochemistry group. He mentored several students and postdoctoral fellows throughout his tenure at the Lab. He prided himself on teaching those around him to do things properly. He was a great colleague who could always be counted on and a wonderful friend with strong values, honesty, and a sense of humor. He touched the lives of many people at the Lab and in his field nationally and internationally.
Away from the lab Jim was an avid gardener. He loved growing tomatoes, pickling cucumbers, and making jam from his many fruit trees. He often shared some of the bounty from his garden with his Lab colleagues. He also enjoyed working with his hands at home and was always undertaking small construction projects around his house.
Jim is survived by his partner, Salma Jivan; daughter, Elizabeth; his parents, Tom and Jean O’Neil; and his sister, Julie O’Neil Leasburg. A memorial service will be held at Unitarian Universalist Church of Berkeley on Saturday, October 20, at 2 PM. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made in Jim’s honor to the Blood & Marrow Transplant Information Network. This organization was incredibly helpful to Jim and his family in his time of need, and his family hopes that others may benefit in his memory.