ENERGIA’s Tribute to Prof. Kirk Smith, Professor of Environmental Health Sciences at the University of California, Berkeley

Dear ENERGIA Partners and Colleagues,

Many of you will have been stunned and saddened to have heard by now of the passing this week of Kirk Smith, Professor of Environmental Health Sciences at the University of California, Berkeley. Many memorials are being written and here is an excellent one from India.

Kirk has a special place in ENERGIA’s history, and several of us have been reminiscing this week about his contributions and place in our lives. He was not only a great human being, but one of the few people who can really be said to have – almost single-handedly at first – created change in paradigm and outcomes in the energy world, because he believed as a scientist that so many lives of women and children were endangered by our inaction.

Elizabeth Cecelski, co-founder of ENERGIA and acting Chair of ENERGIA’s Advisory Group, recollects her first meeting with Prof Smith’s as an advocate and pioneer in the fight against the health impacts of Indoor Air Pollution (IAP), “I remember when Kirk first walked into my office at ILO in 1982 or 1983, looking for allies when he was a lonely voice trying to persuade WHO to start looking at indoor air pollution from traditional fuels and health. We had a lot to talk about! and we continued talking over the years. In 1984, WHO did publish a thin yellow cover report authored by Kirk where he for the first time put IAP and health on the map. It is hard to imagine now, but despite that for many years after that he remained truly a voice in the wilderness and IAP was not taken seriously by either energy or health sectors. That did not stop him one bit! He never gave up researching and advocating using medical and scientific evidence, and gradually his ideas became mainstream. Later, he also had the courage to come out with forward-looking positions that were not popular at the time, such as advocating for clean LPG and electricity for cooking, and debunking the idea that bringing clean modern fuels to women in developing countries would contribute significantly to climate emissions. From the beginning, he was always interested to understand how gender related to IAP and pushed us to come with evidence-based theories and action on gender and energy. Not to mention, one of the kindest and most sincere people I have known. He will be missed by all of us”.

Joy Clancy, co-founder of ENERGIA, remembers knowing Kirk for nearly 40 years, after meeting him at one of her first HEDON meetings, and keeping in touch over the years. She remembers WHO attending the HEDON meetings and how resistant they were to taking on the issue of ‘smoke’ (as it was then framed) and Kirk trying his best to get them to take it seriously. Kirk was one of the referees for her promotion to Full Professor. She says “Not only was Kirk an outstanding scientist but also a kind and genuine human being who cared passionately about addressing the consequences of IAP – yet no matter how busy he always had time to respond to the most trivial request”.

Magi Matinga, from the younger generation of ENERGIA’s technical advisors, talks about how Kirk’s work really inspired her to do energy and health work and definitely sparked a transformation in the sector. He worked tirelessly on showing the impacts of cooking with traditional biomass on women’s health and later on, on household air pollution to reflect biomass’ broader effect on the health of communities. Magi writes, “Although he never said it, I always felt (or rather made the big assumption) that he was on “my side” in being outraged by the need to prove over and over the value of women’s health in developing countries, with respect to IAP, and by the focus on expense of saving these lives, the need “economically” justify. His papers on LPG and electricity for cooking cemented this feeling that he was our champion. Meeting him in person was even more awe-inspiring. As world-famous as he was, he earnestly tried to meet demands of young researchers on his time”.

ENERGIA pays tribute to Prof Smith as one of the leading advocates for rural women and children’s energy needs in developing countries. Our thoughts and prays are with his wife Joan Diamond, daughter Nadia Diamond-Smith and her husband, Vanja Torbica, and two grandchildren, Miro and Zoja, as well as with his colleagues from UC Berkeley’s School of Public Health and the Collaborative Clean Air Policy Centre in New Delhi.