Dr. Emil "Tom" Frei III, 89, an Oak Park resident since 2009, died on April 30 at home, surrounded by family and caregivers. He was born in 1924 into a family of artists and musicians in St. Louis, where his grandfather established the stained glass studio, Emil Frei Inc., which is now run by a fifth generation of St. Louis Freis. Dr. Frei, however, developed an interest in science from early in life. In 1943 he was recruited into the V-12 program, through which he enrolled in pre-medical studies at Colgate University before entering Yale Medical School in 1944. After residency in St. Louis, he received a commission in the U.S. Navy Medical Corps, serving on the USS Frank E. Evans during the Korean War.
His professional career spanned nearly 50 years from the National Cancer Institute in Washington D.C., to the M.D. Anderson Medical Center in Houston, Texas, to the Dana-Farber Cancer Center in Boston, Mass.
Dr. Frei has been celebrated as the "father of combination cancer chemotherapy" for his lifelong work in developing successful treatments for many forms of pediatric and adult cancer. He published more than 500 papers in scientific and professional journals, co-edited the textbook Cancer Medicine with Dr. James Holland, and received numerous awards and honors, including the Albert Lasker Medical Research Award in 1972. His 50-year research career was highlighted in the best-seller The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee.
"Dr. Frei and his colleagues saved the lives of literally millions of cancer patients by championing the then-novel idea of combination chemotherapy for cancer over 40 years ago, and then developing effective combination regimens for previously incurable cancers," said Edward J. Benz Jr., M.D., president of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston.
Dr. Frei's professional career in clinical research was matched by his active personal life. He traveled extensively on six continents and had a deep interest in a wide range of subjects beyond the sciences — history, art, music, philosophy, and politics. He married Elizabeth Smith in 1948 and together they had five children: Mary, Emil, Alice, Nancy, and Judy, and 10 grandchildren.
Elizabeth died in 1986, and Dr. Frei later married Adoria Brock, who died in 2009. At that point, he relocated to Oak Park where he lived with his daughter, Judy, and son-in-law, Larry Howe. He soon became very fond of Oak Park and the Chicago area, which seemed very familiar to his Midwest roots. He found great pleasure in both the Parkinson exercise program at Belmont Village and the Parkinson's dance community at Hubbard Street Dance in Chicago. He made many fulfilling friendships through both of these groups. Regular visits to the Oak Park Public Library sustained his intellectual curiosity, and he enjoyed events sponsored by the Nineteenth Century Charitable Association, especially the Free Readers Ensemble. He found Oak Park to be a very welcoming place and always enjoyed being greeted by friendly Oak Parkers during his wheelchair strolls through Taylor Park where he would watch tennis, enjoy the spring birds, and study the plants in the wetland area.
He good-naturedly accepted those who objected to his St. Louis Cardinals cap, especially in 2011, the year his beloved Cardinals won the World Series. His ready smile, willingness to sing on any occasion at any place, his sense of humor, and his love of life will be never be forgotten. As the center of his family, he will be remembered with a plaque on a tree in Oak Park's Taylor Park. If you see it, think of him. Formal services are planned in Boston.
A brief memorial service will be held at Taylor Park on Saturday, May 11 at 1 p.m.