Chemical suicide victim was UC Berkeley professor


Sydney Kustu, who was found dead at the Berkeley City Club on Tuesday March 18. Photo: UC Berkeley

The woman who committed suicide using a toxic chemical on Tuesday at the Berkeley City Club, prompting a hazardous materials evacuation, was a former professor at UC Berkeley. She killed herself on her 71st birthday.

Sydney Kustu was a professor emerita in plant and microbial biology at Cal’s College of Natural Resources and a member of the prestigious National Academy of Sciences. She was born March 18, 1943, according to an official at the Alameda County coroner’s office, who said Kustu was a Berkeley resident.

Kustu was found deceased in a room at the City Club by a maid, according to an employee of the club, which also operates as a hotel. She had left notes for authorities warning them about the dangerous substance, according to the staffer.

Berkeley Police confirmed that the chemical used in the suicide was sodium azide.

Berkeley Police and Fire departments responded to a call of a “person down” at 1:56 p.m. Tuesday. A joint command that included UCPD spent several hours removing the hazardous material and making sure the building was safe. The club was evacuated and the 2300 block of Durant Avenue was closed to traffic and pedestrians until the evening.

The Berkeley Police Department said they treated the situation as a hazmat situation from the start, based off the warnings that were left behind.  “We treated the situation with an abundance of caution given the nature of what we were dealing with,” said Berkeley Police spokeswoman Officer Stephanie Polizziani.

The Coroner’s Bureau official said a medical examination might take place Thursday to confirm Kustu’s cause of death. However it might be decided not to conduct the exam, he said, if it was determined it would cause “a risk of exposure of the chemicals to employees.”

Sodium azide is a rapidly acting, potentially deadly chemical that exists as an odorless white solid. When mixed with water or an acid, it changes rapidly to a toxic gas with a pungent odor, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Sodium azide is best known as the chemical found in car airbags. It is also used as a chemical preservative in hospitals and laboratories, and in agriculture for pest control.

Kustu was recruited to Cal From UC Davis in 1987. In the fall of 2009, she told Breakthrough magazine, a publication of the College of Natural Resources, that science sustained and gratified her.

“I do science because at one time it was forbidden fruit,” Kustu told the magazine. “When I was a child, men had professions; women were assistants. As a young woman I developed a passion for understanding how cells replicate themselves, how they integrate their parts into a self-reproducing whole.”

Kustu said there were many more female student scientists in her department than when she first arrived and the change was “heartening.”

This story was updated as new information became available.

Elderly woman commits suicide with toxic chemical at Berkeley City Club (03.18.14)

Follow Berkeleyside on Twitter and on Facebook where we often break news. Click here to subscribe to Berkeleyside’s free Daily Briefing.

Print Friendly
Tagged , , , , , ,
Please keep our community civil. Comments should remain on topic and be respectful.
Read our full comments policy »
  • RIP Sydney Kustu.

  • Bill N

    I hope she went easily.

  • luvgabe

    How sad. Where are her family? friends?

  • Sean Co

    She was our neighbor and was a very kind and gentle soul to me and my family. She will be missed by the neighborhood.

  • Ayal Amzel

    This is a sad surprise. She will be missed.

  • David D.

    I’m glad you remember her like that. So many people wish to call those who end their own lives as “mentally ill”. She was a human being just like the rest, and it seems a good one too by your words.

  • samothrellim

    Very sad, and shocking that the same poison is found in car airbags!

  • D Yan

    RIP Sydney. Your contributions in your research fields will be remembered long after.

  • Truth Sayer

    Those who do end their lives are often mentally ill, and they are human being. Mental illness does not imply that a person is bad or less than human as your words suggest.

  • Chris J

    Maybe not for the people whose lives were saved by these bags.

  • Another Guest

    I have heard women as young as thirty-something say that they would rather commit suicide than face old age — and the physical infirmity and helplessness that often goes along with it — on their own in a society that devalues the elderly in general, and elderly women in particular. It’s possible that Ms. Kustu was thinking something along these lines. If so, that is tragic, as I truly believe that no one, absolutely no one, would choose to die before their time, and by their own hand, given a decent alternative. Something needs to change, and soon.

  • Another Guest

    And I’m just going to add that one very common fear is that of being abused, sexually or otherwise, in a nursing home. It’s all too common.

  • Sympathy

    Your negative remarks are hurtful and are not welcome here. If you don’t understand suicide then please try to develop some sympathy and understanding of people who would take their own life.

  • GoBears14

    In high school, I was good friends with her son (and only child). As far as I know, she never remarried. The handful of times I met Sydney, she seemed to be a very friendly and gentle person. It is a really sad situation for all involved.

  • David D.

    I’m glad you mentioned society’s lack of respect for elders and women. I would contend that there are many people who which to “die before their time”. None of us have a choice about being born. Some people find life to be very fulfilling, but others do not. Those people who don’t wish to live are forced into being alive by cultural and religious pressure. You may not understand it, but those who are suicidal do. All they wish is for people to respect them and their choice not to live.

  • David D.

    My choice of words was bad, and I apologize. Yes, those who are mentally ill are just as human as anyone and I have great compassion for them. The quote marks were to make the point that suicidal people are most often denigrated and called “mentally ill” as a pejorative term. Just because someone decides to end their life should not make them a target of disrespect. It’s thier life, it belongs to no one else. They can do as they chose with it, including end it.

  • David D.

    She didn’t put anyone in harms way. She left an appropriate warning, and emergency services (which would have been there for any death, including one of natural causes) handled it well. The “selfish” comment isn’t helpful. It’s usually used to guilt someone who is in mortal pain into staying alive so the one calling them selfish doesn’t have to feel any pain. Selfish is a two way street.

  • Another Guest

    I am well aware that there are many people who “do not find life very fulfilling”; my point is that these feelings do not arise in a vacuum. Pessimism, trauma, depression, hopelessness, despair, wanting to check out — those aren’t just mysterious, endogenous mental conditions that some individuals happen to have. Society is at least as responsible as brain chemistry, and in some cases, probably more so. I do not accept the view that suicide is somehow a therapeutic outcome for anyone who is not terminally ill, but still finding life not worth living — even if those feelings are chronic. I don’t think a person who commits suicide is somehow defective, mentally or morally, but I do think they have been very ill-served. There needs to be a better safety net and better support for everyone, at all stages of life.

  • guest

    I’m sure Dr. (not Ms.) Kustu had very good reasons for what she did. Given her continuing vitality and engagement, I very much doubt it had anything to do with her condition as an “elderly” woman, facing infirmity. More likely, she was facing a terminal diagnosis, and made an informed choice. Making her a poster child for the hopelessness of the aged would, no doubt, make her chuckle.

  • Julia

    Does anyone have information on funeral services for Sydney?

  • L Wolf

    “Selfish” would include choosing to put this situation into other people’s space.
    The City Club is a place where people live and work.
    People who had to clean up after her death.
    Leaving a note is not sufficient to prevent a lot of pain for those who had to cope with the result of her actions.

  • Truth Sayer

    Well stated my friend.

  • Truth Sayer

    Y are correct. Which reminds me of people who attempt to take there life by putting others in danger. E.g. one guy parked his car in the path of a train.

  • Tony R.

    That should read was found in car airbags. It is no longer used, having been largely replaced by nitroguanidine. Even where sodium azide is used for this purpose, it is converted by reaction with other ingredients, such as potassium nitrate and silica, into harmless substances.

  • Richard

    The sad thing is they won’t let her be buried in a Jewish cemetery. No suicides allowed…she has to be buried with the goyim.

  • Chembomb

    His remarks were not as hurtful as the chemicals could have been.

  • Rocco

    Except those remarks were actually hurtful, and nobody else was physically harmed due to the manner of her suicide.

    If you two want to engage in hypotheticals, why not engage in more productive ones: What if there were more resources available to people who are thinking of ending their own lives? What if mental health were taken more seriously? What if there was support out there for people who are aging and facing difficult transitions in their lives?

    As someone who recently lost their father to suicide, it’s dismaying to see that people want to play pretend time about a tragedy instead of engaging in more productive, helpful, or respectful endeavors aimed at the survivors.

  • Richy

    “nobody else was physically harmed due to the manner of her suicide.”

    Yet. If you look up the exposure limits, it’s very probable that other bystanders inhaled enough to cause damage in the years to come. Also, the article states that the body is still toxic and the coroners can’t perform an autopsy because of this.

  • Richy

    She killed herself with the chemical equivalent of a bomb. Innocent bystanders may have been exposed to enough of the chemical to cause harm and impairment in future years. Let’s be realistic; a suicide can be both horribly tragic and horribly irresponsible.

  • berkeleybarb

    That is the only sense I can make of this – terminal diagnosis, informed choice. I did now know her at all well, but back when I was a grad student she always was supportive and showed an interest in me. Always a smile, always friendly.

  • Anonymous Bear

    I recall that she was featured in a campus health flyer or card which documented her fight against cancer. I recognized her at the RSF a couple years ago from that document’s photo and asked how things were going. She seemed positive at the time. My cousin had a long, losing battle with cancer and he ultimately decided that, when it returned once more for the umteenth time, he didn’t want to prolong his life and let it take him. Perhaps Dr. Kustu faced a similar decision.

  • Tom Brody

    I first saw Dr. Kustu at the time I was doing my senior undergraduate project in Barker Hall. I saw her in the little library in Barker Hall. My project, in E.E. Snell’s laboratory, was to purify and crystallize histidinol-P aminotransferase. This was in 1972-1973. At that time, I considered some of the professors in Barker Hall to be gods, that is, the ones in the National Academy of Sciences. And by the way, S.G.K. was a member of the National Academy of Sciences.

  • Erma Hamilton

    Hi. I just came back from visiting Berkeley where my very beloved son, Michael chose to end his life. My grief is unending….Michael tried for the three years he was “hooked” on drugs to receive help. I’ve never seen anybody try as hard as he did to receive help. I tried for him, but he never received help for his mental issues compounded by his drug use. He even went to the local hospital to receive medical services caused by a drug interaction as he told his very harrowing story. He was given more pills, patted on the back and wished good luck. We had a responsibility. Period. He was forced or duped into trying drugs for the first time. Unfortunately, Michael has never had any family support, but me. We were abandoned by relatives. Just sharing. BTW, Ken and Steve from Berkeley HS were kind and gentle. Thank you!