John M. Peters, MD, DSc, MPH, the Hastings Professor of Preventive Medicine at the USC Keck School of Medicine passed away at age 75 on May 6 from pancreatic cancer.  The School’s dean, Carmen A. Puliafito, said

“one of the legends of environmental and occupational health.  His work took him from the freeways of Los Angeles to the tire factories of Akron to the granite mines of Vermont.  The focus of his research was to investigate and quantify environmental risks and then contribute to strategies to mitigate that risk in the workplace and in everyday life.”

My dear friend and former deputy asst. secretary at MSHA, Andrea Hricko, MPH, first met John Peters in the early 1970s.  She was working for Ralph Nader, and John Peters was a professor at Harvard.   He was serving on a panel for OSHA making an inquiry about vinyl chloride and BF Goodrich – and she testified before him.  She told me

“He was already on his way to becoming a legend in occupational health, with his studies of granite shed workers and workers exposed to toluene diisocyanate (TDI).  

After leaving MSHA in 1997, Andrea  was recruited by John Peters to USC.  She said:

“John Peters was a brilliant, witty, and gentle man whose main professional goal in life was ‘doing the best science possible,’ something he did with the greatest integrity.  John has left an amazing legacy, hiring and mentoring  a dozen new faculty members at USC who now work on air pollution and other environmental health issues, and who all already miss him terribly.”

A statement issued by USC recounts just some of Dr. John M Peters’ accomplishments.

  • Conducted and published results on landmark studies on the health effects of silica, asbestos, vinyl chloride and studies of the health of firefighters and granite workers
  • Founding director of the division of environmental health in the Department of Preventive Medicine
  • Founded the Southern California Environmental Health Sciences Center and directed it for 10 years
  • Founding director of the Children’s Health Study at USC
  • Established two national research centers, one on environmental health sciences and another on children’s environmental health funded by NIEHS and the EPA

His colleague Frank Gilliland, MD, PhD, professor of environmental health, said John M Peters was:

“a true visionary in environmental and occupational health who made key contributions that have improved public health. His example of scientific integrity in an often-contentious field is an important part of his legacy. John has been an effective mentor for many of the current and future leaders in environmental health research.”

I never had the pleasure of meeting Dr. John Peters, but feel like I know him through his leadership on the Children’s Health Study.  The students in my undergraduate course “Health and the Environment” and I read several papers (here, here, here) about this amazing epi study of thousands of children recruited from elementary schools in 12 southern California cities.  We’ve learned how current levels of ozone, NO2, particulate matter, other air contaminant affect lung function growth, increase school absences, exacerbate asthma, and even cause new cases of asthma.   I’m proud to report that over the last four years, 130 young people know a lot more about air contaminants and public health because of John Peters’ work.  I feel confident in saying that my students know that complex and successful research like the Children’s Health Study reflects the heart, soul and public health passion of John Peters and his colleagues.

Dr. John M Peters is survived by his wife, Ruth Kloepfer Peters, his four children, six grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren.

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