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Long IslandObituaries

Edgar A. Tonna of Huntington Station, renowned scientist, dies at 91

Edgar Tonna worked for Brookhaven National Laboratory, and

Edgar Tonna worked for Brookhaven National Laboratory, and was a longtime professor of histology at New York University, Credit: Family Photo

Edgar A. Tonna lived a life of curiosity and exploration.

A renowned research scientist, he worked for Brookhaven National Laboratory and the Hospital for Special Surgery and was a longtime professor of histology at New York University, where his expertise in biology and microbiology, aging and the skeletal system was called upon by the Atomic Energy Commission, NASA and scientific organizations from around the world.

He was a world traveler who crossed the Mediterranean and Atlantic three times before the age of 10, and he was a collector of coins, stamps, shells and rocks.

Tonna was fluent in six languages — Maltese, English, Italian, French, German and Arabic — was published 266 times in scientific journals, and was an artist, music connoisseur and composer. He once even performed as a conductor at the Tilles Center at LIU-Post, then known as C.W. Post College.

"He was a true renaissance man," his son, Paul J. Tonna of Huntington, former presiding officer of the Suffolk County Legislature, said this week.

Edgar A. Tonna died of congestive heart failure Sunday at his home in Huntington Station. He was 91.

Born May 10, 1928, in Msida, a small fishing village on the northeast coast of Malta, Tonna first came to the United States with his father, John, and mother, Stella, as a 2-year-old, arriving on Aug. 29, 1930, his son said. But after Stella died giving birth to Tonna's brother Joseph in 1934, John took his two boys and returned to Malta that July — and married Stella's sister, Philomena, months later.

"There apparently was a Maltese custom at the time that said if there's an available sister on the mother's side, the widowed husband was allowed to marry her," Paul Tonna said. "Her sister was a nun — and she had to get special dispensation from the pope."

John and Philomena married on Oct. 7, 1934, and, Paul Tonna said, that on Oct. 26 John returned to New York. Philomena and her two nephews, now stepsons, joined him in America in 1937.

Edgar Tonna lived with his family in Manhattan, where, his son said, he later became a brilliant science student at Benjamin Franklin High School.

In 1946, Tonna joined the Medical Corps of the U.S. Navy as a pharmacist's mate and, with an outstanding score on a medical aptitude test, was allowed to select his posting. He picked the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

There, Paul Tonna said, his father helped administer vaccinations and physicals to new recruits. "My father said the physicians would joke about these big needles and my dad later said how you'd see these big guys fainting at the sight of a needle," Paul Tonna said.

Discharged from the Navy in 1948, Edgar Tonna attended St. John's University on the GI Bill and, while studying biology, met his future wife, Patricia Kennedy of Flatlands, Brooklyn.

"The second he saw her, he said he knew," Paul Tonna said. "Then, my dad always knew who he was. There was no personal journey of self-discovery there. He was rabidly Roman Catholic. For him, his faith was everything. Obeying the rules of the church; the love for his country, which he said gave him his freedom, his education; the love of research; the love for his family, his children. It was all very clear and certain for him."

And, Paul Tonna said, his father found that science was confirmation of both his natural curiosity and his faith.

"He said, 'Every time I look into the microscope I see God's handiwork.'"

Married on Aug. 18, 1951, Edgar and Patricia had four children. First, Edgar worked at the Hospital for Special Surgery, leaving to become a research scientist at Brookhaven National Laboratory in 1958, while also teaching biology at LIU-Brooklyn. As the children got older, Paul Tonna said, his father decided he needed to ensure their education. So, in 1967, Edgar left BNL and became a full-tenured professor at New York University. Three of the four children attended NYU.

Edgar retired from NYU in the early 1990s but continued to teach part-time there until 1995, his son said.

He authored or co-authored 266 articles in scientific publications, on subjects ranging from aging, cell proliferation and the skeletal system to microtomy and the use of radioactive isotopes as molecular tracers. 

He was a recipient of the St. John's University Gregor Mendel Medal and held fellowships in The Gerontological Society, the Royal Microscopial Society and The New York Academy of Sciences. He also was a member of The Royal Society of Medicine, the Research Society of America, and the Society for Experimental Biology and Medicine.

During his career, his son Paul said, Edgar lectured all over the globe, including Egypt and the then-Soviet Union. He was consulted by NASA about skeletal systems following early space flights, Paul said. He was consulted on radiobiology by the National Atomic Energy Commission of Argentina.

Tonna is survived by sons Edgar Tonna and wife Tai Ngee of Flemington, New Jersey; Paul and Carol of Huntington; John and wife Anna, also of Huntington; and daughter Patricia and her husband, Doug Brunskill, of Scottsdale, Arizona, as well as 14 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

Edgar Tonna's wife, Patricia, died of Parkinson's disease in 2014. He was also predeceased by his parents, and his brother Joseph and sister Mary.

Visiting will be at M.A. Connell Funeral Home, 934 New York Ave., Huntington Station, Thursday from 2 to 4 p.m. and 7 to 9 p.m. A Mass of Christian Burial will be at St. Hugh of Lincoln Roman Catholic Church on Friday at 9:30 a.m., with burial to follow at St. Patrick's Cemetery in Huntington.

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