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Peter Andrew Peterson

March 17, 1925 ~ September 7, 2017 (age 92)
 

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Peter A. Peterson took his last breath peacefully on Thursday, September 7, 2017. He was in the company of his family at his Sonoma, California, home, where he and Sally, his wife of 69 years, had lived since moving there four years ago from their longtime residence in Ames, Iowa.

Peter was born on March 17, 1925, in Bristol, CT, to Andrew Peterson and Paschalia Economon, both having come to the U.S. from Greece. They then moved to Portland, CT, where Peter was educated through high school.

He began his studies in 1942 at Tufts University, where he competed on the school’s soccer team. He left to enlist in the Navy and worked at the Bethesda medical facility during WWII. He credited his Naval experience as having fueled his interest in biology, which became his focus when he returned to Tufts, receiving his BS in 1947.

Upon graduation he became a research assistant at the Carnegie Institute in Cold Spring Harbor, NY, then an early hub of exploration in the field of genetics. Working in the Bruce Wallace lab, he met another young scientist, Sara L. Rohrer, known as Sally, with whom he’d spend the rest of his life, following their marriage in 1948.

To continue his studies with the maize cytogeneticist Marcus Rhoades, in 1949 they moved to the University of Illinois, where both he and Sally began graduate studies. During their time in Champaign, their two daughters, Sara and Susan, were born.

Upon receipt of his PhD in 1953, in Genetics, Botany and Zoology, the family of four moved to the University of California Riverside’s Citrus Experiment Station, where his vehicles of study were avocados and peppers.

In 1956, he joined Iowa State University to study trait transmission via corn as Asst. Professor of Genetics, and in 1968 became Professor of Agronomy. His lifelong research has focused on transposable elements.

Dr. Peterson published many research papers during his career, including a book, Maize Genetics and Breeding in the 20th Century, published in 1999. He served as editor of Maydica and associate editor of Genetics and Plant Breeding.

During his tenure, he received several awards, including Distinguished Iowa Scientist from the Iowa Academy of Science (1988), the Burlington Northern Foundation Award for Career Achievement in Research (1992), the National Council of Commercial Plant Breeders Award for Genetics and Plant Breeding Award (1994), and became a Distinguished Fellow of the Iowa Academy of Sciences (1997).

His career spanned the globe as a recipient of various visiting professorships, including Stanford University (1964), a National Health Institute Research Fellow at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden (1968), as faculty of the Biochemistry Department at the University of Vienna in Austria (1972), The Biochemical Section of the Plant Breeding Institute in Cambridge, England (1973); and The University of Freiburg, The Max-Planck Institute, and Technische Universitat – all in Germany (1977, 1980, 1994). He continued his research with double crops of maize each year with fields in Iowa and in Florida or Hawaii.

Regarding his research at Iowa State, Peter’s objectives were “to learn more about the corn genome, both genetically and molecularly.” His goals in teaching were to  “relate current and advanced topics from genetics and molecular genetics that will elucidate problems in plant breeding.”

As one graduate student recently reflected on his years with him, “Prof. Peterson taught me great things in life that have made me the person I am today – focus, belief in oneself, hard work and integrity, among others. I learnt all these ‘unknowingly.’ Prof. Peterson tolerated my deficiencies and was a great teacher and mentor.”

Upon his retirement from Iowa State in July of 2013, after 57 years of service, ISU established a scholarship in his name: The Peter A Peterson Award for Research Excellence in Genetics and Genomics or Molecular Cellular and Developmental Biology.

Peter was personally active in many ways, riding his bike to campus daily, in sun or snow, playing handball regularly and, in the winter, he and Sally enjoyed cross-country skiing. He lived a long and healthy life and is survived by his wife, Sally; his daughters, Sara Peterson and Susan Peterson St. Francis; Susan’s husband, Raymond St. Francis, and their two sons, Adrian and Theo St. Francis.


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