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In Memoriam: John M. Peters, 75

In Memoriam: John M. Peters, 75
John Peters founded the Southern California Environmental Health Sciences Center and directed it for 10 years.

John M. Peters, the Hastings Professor of Preventive Medicine at the Keck School of Medicine of USC and a renowned authority on the effects of air pollution on health, died of pancreatic cancer May 6 at his home in San Marino. He was 75.

Peters, the founding director of the division of environmental health in the Department of Preventive Medicine, also founded the Southern California Environmental Health Sciences Center and directed it for 10 years. Researchers at the center – a USC-based, National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences-supported center – study how a wide variety of environmental factors and personal factors interact to produce human disease.

In a message to Keck School faculty on May 7, dean Carmen A. Puliafito hailed Peters as “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.”

Born April 24, 1935, in Brigham City, Utah, Peters studied at the University of Utah, receiving his bachelor’s degree in biology in 1957 and his M.D. in 1960. After graduating, he did a surgical residency at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Md., for one year, and then was drafted.

He served for two years as a captain in the U.S. Army at Fort Belvoir, Va. In the service he became fascinated with the health problems of workers and decided to pursue occupational medicine as a career, receiving an MPH in 1964 and a D.Sc. in 1966, both from Harvard University. He stayed on the faculty at the Harvard School of Public Health until 1980, as one of the pioneers in the field of occupational medicine. He published landmark studies on the health effects of silica, asbestos, vinyl chloride and other chemicals, and he did pioneering studies on the health of firefighters and granite workers.

In 1980 he moved to USC and founded the division of environmental health in the Department of Preventive Medicine. Perhaps his most important scientific contribution, which he made as the founding director of the Children’s Health Study at USC, was to systematically address the question of chronic effects of air pollution on California’s children through a long-term health study.

The study’s research findings on the long-term effects of air pollution on children’s lungs help to establish that:

� Current levels of air pollution have chronic, adverse effects on lung growth;
� Air pollution affects both development and exacerbation of asthma;
� Living or going to school close to busy roads and freeways is linked to asthma, reduced lung function growth and increased school absences; and
� Genes affect the risk of air pollution.

These findings have had a significant impact on public health and public policy. The CHS findings have been key in establishing guidelines for siting new schools near busy roads and in providing a firm scientific basis for revising state and national ambient air quality standards, including those for ozone, particulate matter and nitrogen oxides.

At USC, Peters established two national research centers, one on environmental health sciences and another on children’s environmental health funded by NIEHS and the Environmental Protection Agency.
Through these centers, he recruited numerous investigators to USC who will continue to carry on his commitment to improve public health through environmental health research.

Jonathan Samet, the Flora L. Thornton Chair of the Department of Preventive Medicine, acknowledged Peters’ extraordinary professional successes, but also added, “Beyond these scientific achievements, John was an extraordinary mentor, leaving a legacy of leaders at USC and around the world.”

Frank Gilliland, professor of environmental health, called Peters “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.”

Over his 45-year career, 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.

Peters received numerous honors and awards for his work, most recently receiving the 2009 Haagen-Smit Clean Air Award from the California Air Resources Board at a March 1, 2010 luncheon at USC’s Health Sciences campus.

In 2009, he garnered the Harvard University School of Public Health’s Alumni Award of Merit. Peters also received the 2009 John M. Peters Award from the Environmental and Occupational Health Assembly of the American Thoracic Society. He was the first recipient of the award, which was named in his honor.

In 2004, Peters received the Johns Hopkins Society of Scholars award, which inducts former postdoctoral fellows and junior or visiting faculty at Johns Hopkins who have gained marked distinction in their fields of physical, biological, medical, social or engineering sciences or in the humanities.

He is survived by his wife, Ruth Kloepfer Peters (former faculty member of Preventive Medicine at USC), sister Jody King, children John Peters, Philip Peters, Susa Brush and Charles Peters, as well as six grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

The John Peters Fund for Environmental Research and Education was established a year ago to sustain research and education in environmental health at USC. Persons interested in making a memorial donation to the fund may contact Clara Driscoll at (323) 442-2358 or or visit

The school is planning a commemoration of Peters’ life and contributions.

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