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John Peters Remembered

By Eddy Ball
June 2010

John Peters, M.D., D.Sc.
Peters, above, was remembered by colleague and current SCEHSC director Frank Gilliland as "an example of scientific integrity [and] mentor for many of the current and future leaders in environmental health research." (Photo courtesy of USC)

Friends and colleagues mourned the passing of one of the legends of environmental and occupational health after learning of the death May 6 of NIEHS grantee John Peters, M.D., D.Sc., whose research played a crucial role in demonstrating the short- and long-term effects of air pollutants on the health of children. Peters died at his home in San Marino, Calif., of pancreatic cancer at age 75.

Colleagues at the University of Southern California (USC) and nationwide expressed their deep sense of loss and extended their sympathy to Peters' widow, Ruanne, and family. Peters, the Hastings Professor and founding director of the USC Division of Environmental Health, was recognized as a leading authority in his field. Peters had been the principal investigator on a number of NIEHS grants and was the founding director in 1996 of its the Southern California Environmental Health Sciences Center (SCEHSC), directed by Frank Gilliland, M.D., Ph.D., since 2006.

USC posted an extended tribute on its USCNews Web site with comments by USC researchers Jonathan Samet, M.D., and Gilliland. The Los Angeles Times published a lengthy obituary. The public health Web site Pumphandle has posted a tribute that includes a heart-felt remembrance by Peters' longtime USC colleague and National Advisory Environmental Health Sciences Council member Andrea Hricko.

NIEHS/NTP Director Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., described Peters' death as a great loss to the environmental health sciences community. In her response to the news, NIEHS Acting Director of Extramural Research and Training Gwen Collman, Ph.D., said of Peters, "He was a man of great vision and a delight to work with. He contributed to the field of respiratory epidemiology and air pollution in so many ways."

Peters founded the Children's Health Study in the early 1990s and mentored a team of investigators who continue to expand the scope of the original study. The study has shown that short-term exposure to pollutants increases asthma and absences from school, that children growing up and attending school near freeways suffer the worst effects from air pollution and that long-term exposure stunts the growth of the lungs.

During a productive 45-year career in the field of the environmental health sciences and public health, Peters published more than 150 research papers, reports and chapters on subjects including the health effects of air pollution, magnetic fields, asbestos, vinyl chloride and other chemicals in both the work and general environment. Last year, USC established the John Peters Fund for Environmental Research and Education, which is accepting memorial contributions to sustain research and education in environmental health at USC.

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