Richard E. Peter (1943-2007)
Richard R. Peter lectureship 2004
Letters from colleagues
There isn’t an extant comparative endocrinologist who isn’t in some way touched by Dick’s work and teaching. It is difficult to think of a hormone or a part of a fish that wasn’t in his mélange of studies. The International Federation of Fish Endocrinologists owes its being to the creative and futuristic thinking of Dick Peter. He served as the group’s president for the first 12 years of its existence. But this isn’t the only gift he gave to his profession. For future endocrinologists, he is truly one of the giants upon whose shoulders their field rests. And for those of us who were fortunate enough to know him, he also gave the gift of a hearty laugh, a genuine smile, and wonderful sense of humor.
Richard E. Peter: A distinguished scientist, mentor, and a visionary
Carl (President, IFFE) and Jacque Schreck
On behalf of the International Federation of Fish Endocrinologist
Richard E. Peter, a distinguished Canadian comparative endocrinologist, died in March 2007. He was 64. Dr. Peter (Dick) was a world leader in fish endocrinology. At the University of Alberta, where he worked for most of his career, and in the larger scientific community, he was known for his warmth, his strong leadership qualities, and his generous mentoring of students and colleagues. His sense of humor, infectious laugh, and compassion are legendary.
Dick was a caring teacher and mentor and guided the research of many graduate students and postdoctoral fellows. He received numerous national and international awards and published over 300 peer-reviewed articles in the leading scientific journals. He had a strong and positive influence on the careers of many scientists who have become leaders in their fields, which is a true testament to his success as a professor. Dick was a pioneer in the area of fish reproductive endocrinology and explored various aspects of comparative neuroendocrinology. One of his early research accomplishments was completion of a stereotaxic atlas of the fish brain, which was used by many investigators around the world. He led his research group to discover various aspects of brain–pituitary function, resulting in the development of a novel technique for induction of spawning in farmed fish. This technology has been licensed and marketed internationally. Dick was a visionary scholar who made exceptional contributions to science throughout his distinguished career.
He was an outstanding leader within the University of Alberta, across Canada, and throughout the world. As a two-term dean of the Faculty of Science at the University of Alberta, Dick was in the unenviable position of leading the faculty through the difficult economic landscape of the early to mid 1990s. Despite these circumstances, Dick brought the faculty and the university to positions of great international prominence. He had the amazing ability to influence his students, postdocs, and staff to be builders alongside him, and as a result the teaching, research, and service elements of the faculty’s operations all surged forward under his stewardship. Many will remember Dick as an eminent scientist who worked hard for more than 35 years to create an atmosphere where his students and colleagues could pursue scientific excellence.
Dick is survived by his wife, Leona, and two sons, Jason and Mathew. He will be sorely missed.
Hamid R. Habibi and Jeffrey I. Goldberg
The news of the sudden passing of Dr. Richard (Dick) Peter hit many of his former trainees hard. For someone who had the good fortune to be able to call Dick a mentor, colleague, and friend over the last 28 years, there is so much to remember and to be grateful for.
In the approach to science, Dick taught us to always be critical of our work and to move forward with confidence, to set a solid foundation and to aim high, to see the wider scope of things and to challenge existing concepts, and to try out new directions and to learn from mistakes. Dick had an uncanny way of balancing the development of the scientific skills of his trainees and the cultivation of the human and social side. Most of all, the friendly but firm nudges that Dick provided at critical points were crucial in launching many of us on our careers. Dick showed us that it is possible to combine a successful scientific research career with an equally successful administration career while still having an enjoyable life outside academia. Dick was one of a kind and a role model for many of his students. Dick had high hopes for his trainees and his support for them was unfaltering. It is true that if Dick believed in your cause, you could not hope for a more loyal, effective, and wholehearted supporter and champion. Dick extended this principle to everyone he associated with and in every aspect of his scientific and administrative endeavors.
Dick’s legacy is in part the people who benefited from having been associated with him. The fact that 17 of Dick’s former students, trainees, and research associates were at the Celebration of Life event was a clear indication of how deeply Dick had touched the inner hearts of people from his lab, not only as a mentor but also as a friend. The standard that Dick had set for his trainees to aim for was high indeed. Thank you, Dick, for all you have done. You are sorely missed!
as presented at “A Celebration of Life for Dick,” March 21, 2007, University of Alberta
As with everyone here in the audience, it was a great shock indeed to learn of Dr. Dick Peter’s sudden death on March 8, 2007, one day after his 64th birthday. I feel very privileged to have been part of Dick’s lab and to have trained under his tutorage. I am especially honored to be able to speak on behalf of Dr. Peter’s former trainees and present a short tribute to Dick and his mentoring.
Dick was a great mentor to many of us. Dick supervised with great patience, personal attention, and allowance for personal scientific freedom. Yet one was always aware of the standard of excellence that had to be achieved. Dick graduated 6 MSc and 17 PhD students and had at least 25 post-doctoral fellows and 9 visiting scientists from some 17 countries over 6 continents (i.e., with the exception of Antarctica). The international nature of the group created a great atmosphere of learning and collaboration, which helped to promote subsequent successes in his trainees. Of the PhD graduates, except for one who is a practicing MD and one businessman, all others are involved in science. Among them are 12 professorial academics, 1 former dean, 1 former chair of a department, 1 CRC chair, 1 scientific consultant, and 2 government scientists (including a provincial deputy minister of fisheries, India). All MSc graduates are either in science or in academic administration. Dick’s former post-doctoral fellows are equally successful. All are active in science in academia, government, university research groups, or private industry. Among the 19 in academia are at least 2 directors of research units, 1 former dean of science, 1 associate dean of science, 3 former/current chairs of departments, and 1 university pro chancellor. In addition, among Dick’s former PhD students and post-doctoral fellows are 2 recent winners of the Pickford Medal (awarded by the International Federation of Comparative Endocrinological Societies once every 4 years for seminal contributions to comparative endocrinology by a young scientist under 45). In addition, there are several winners of young investigator awards at the provincial and national levels, and at least 3 winners of best teaching awards at the university level. Amazingly, with all his administrative duties as departmental chair, dean, VP at Alberta Research Council, and CEO of Institute for Food and Agricultural Sciences in the last 25 years, Dick continued to find time to personally train post-doctoral fellows, graduate students, and project students, meeting with them at least once a week to go over data and experiments. This clearly showed his passion for science and mentoring. Dick’s success in mentoring was recognized with a Best Mentoring Award from the University of Alberta in March 2002.
In addition to promoting scientific and technical excellence, Dick promoted lateral thinking and inquisitiveness to try new ideas and approaches. There is a “Goldfish Dummy of the Year Award” in the lab. This is actually a silicon model of a mature female goldfish used in an experiment in the studies of male goldfish sexual behaviour. It was thought that dangling such a model, which also has a tube built in to release pheromones, in front of a male goldfish, would elicit male courtship behaviour. It did not work! This dummy goldfish was subsequently presented, in good humor, for good ideas or attempts that did not quite work, as well as for “stupid mistakes.” Dick not only honored several of his students, including me, with this award, but also was not afraid to award it to himself on several occasions. Remembering all the different events leading to the awarding of this “Goldfish Award” not only brings back fond memories but also, in retrospect, reminds me that these were indeed opportunities for his students to learn to accept mistakes and mishaps gracefully and not to be afraid to try new ideas.
In his mentoring of students, Dick was also not afraid to show us his “personal side” (or his human side). He expressed genuine concerns about whatever was troubling us, whether it was scientific, academic, family, or social. Dick and Leona went out of their way to help out as much as they could. Dick and Leona not only opened their home to newcomers to the city, but also assisted in apartment hunting. A bundle of flowers or a pot of homemade stew would appear unexpectedly when such comforting gestures were appropriate. As a result, one not only moved from being a trainee to a scientific colleague during the process, but also became a genuinely good friend of Dick and his family. Dick continued to offer material and spiritual support, as well as timely advice and nominations for awards, as his trainees started their laboratories and progressed through their careers. His trainees think of Dick as part of their families, and in turn, Dick and his wife Leona viewed us as part of the extended Peter family. The potluck gatherings at Dick’s home were all memorable and his lab Christmas parties were legendary. Dick often appeared as Santa Claus to the delight of all. The many wine-tasting and birthday parties also taught a great number of us the finer points of viniculture and appreciation of cheeses and pâté. His students and trainees greatly admired this fun- and humor-loving side of Dick. I was told that one time in the mid-1970s, Dick’s first PhD student showed up at the beginning of one of Dick’s lecture (BIOL 296) with his bagpipes and piped him in. Of course the lecture went downhill from that point on. A group of his students in the 1980s presented Dick with a red “Captain Goldfish T-shirt” complete with shiny scales. This became part of Dick’s outfit on several occasions, including a Halloween party, complete with a red cape, pointy skull cap, and trident borrowed from his son Matt. Most of Dick’s former trainees (including undergraduate project and summer students) kept in touch with him directly, and they would also send little gifts with colleagues back to Edmonton for Dick and Leona years after they had left Dick’s laboratory. A visit to Dick’s home would show all of these gifts proudly and lovingly displayed. Dick was indeed very proud of his trainees.
I have lost count but at least 12 of Dick’s former trainees are present here today. They came not only from within Canada and North America, but also from Hong Kong and Mexico. This clearly shows the kind of respect and love that Dick’s former trainees have for him as a person. I will close by reading three excerpts from selected e-mails that I have received from Dick’s former trainees who are not able to attend today. These clearly indicate how much impact Dick had on our lives and scientific career.
The first one comes from Dr. Wei Ge (Hong Kong), a former PhD student whose teaching commitments did not allow him to be here today and it reads: “As I often told my students and colleagues, being Dick’s student is probably the luckiest thing one can have as a graduate student, and this title of being his student has been one of the major driving forces for our continual efforts to pursue successes in our careers. After I left Edmonton, whenever I achieved something, no matter how insignificant, Dick was often one of the first ones to send a warm note of encouragement and congratulations. Although he is not here anymore, I am sure his spirit and legacy will endure and will always be with me in the future.”
The second excerpt comes from Dr. Jayme da Cunha Bastos (Brazil), a former post-doctoral fellow: “I owe him a lot of my progress as a professor and human being. Also do my kids and my wife Vera. I will be always beholden to Dick and many of you at the University of Alberta. The more I recall those two years in Edmonton, the more I realize how great and important they were for all my family….”
The last one comes from Dr. Olivier Kah, one of several post-doctoral fellow s and scientists from France who visited Dick’s lab: “The whole French community of fish physiologists and comparative endocrinologists was deeply affected by the terrible news that Dick passed away. In this sad circumstance, we wish to offer his family, friends and colleagues our most sincere condolences. Some of us, like Roland Billard, started to collaborate with Dick very early, during the mid 1970s. Later on, many French fish physiologists, if not all, interacted with Dick or were inspired by him. Thus, we all feel somehow like his children. Dick will be remembered by all of us as an outstanding scientist and a faithful friend. Be at peace, dear Dick, you will not be forgotten.”
In addition to being a mentor, Dick will always be fondly remembered by his trainees as a true friend and gentleman. We will miss his cheery smile and characteristic (and infectious) laugh. I am sure I speak on behalf of all of Dick’s former trainees, “Leona, Jay and Matt, our homes are always open to you as yours have been to us and we would all love to have you visit when ever you can.”
John Chang and Alice Hontela
The first time I saw you was in 1977 on the occasion of the first International Symposium on Reproductive Physiology of Fish organized by your friend Roland Billard in Paimpont. You were concentrating on your lecture, and pacing back and forth; you seemed very nervous, which was surprising to me. How could somebody with your scientific reputation be nervous? You always seemed so strong and so indestructible. How would I have guessed that you were also so humble? Two years later, the CNRS gave me the opportunity to go abroad to complete my training and, without any hesitation, I decided to ask you if I could join your lab. At that time I was interested in the anatomical origin of the innervation of the fish pituitary. I thought it would be nice if we could destroy some brain regions using the methods in your famous “Stereotaxic atlas and technique for forebrain nuclei of the goldfish” (J. Comp. Neurol. 1975 159:69–101) and then look at the degenerating fibres in the pituitary. You said yes and I remember how anxious I was on that day in July 1979 when I got off the plane in Edmonton, that city where I was supposed to freeze for months. But one week after my arrival, thanks to the wonderful hospitality of the Peters’ house, I had the feeling that I was a member of the family and that feeling persisted over the next 30 years. Of course, I was not your only “adopted” family member. During all these years, generations of students, post-docs, or visiting scientists came to Edmonton, and also became members of the Peter family and had the opportunity to enjoy a delicious barbecue dinner in your garden. Those moments shared with you, Leona, Jason, and Matt are great memories I and others will keep forever deep in our heart. Your work has always been a source of inspiration for me, as it was and still is for the whole fish endocrinology community, but more importantly you were also a great mentor who gave me self-confidence and also, on several important occasions, the right advice. I am glad that, not so long ago, I told you that I could never thank you enough for the impact you had on the development of my career.
We will miss you.
Dick Peter’s scientific legacy to the field of comparative endocrinology is embedded in the pages of GCE and several other endocrinology journals, but his presence will continue to be felt by the students, colleagues, and friends that he inspired over the past thirty years.