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Symposium honors a hero of metabolism research who fell victim to McCarthy

Yale Medicine Magazine, 1998 - Fall


At a symposium on John P. Peters, M.D., speakers paid tribute to one of the nation’s leading experts in metabolism who stood up to McCarthyism in the 1950s.

A nephrologist who taught at Yale from 1922 until his death in 1955, Dr. Peters came to national attention in the 1930s as secretary of the Committee of 430 Physicians, a group that advocated reforms that have become standard features of modern medicine. They believed that the health of the public should be a concern of government and that government should be involved in providing medical care. During the McCarthy era, Dr. Peters’ views and his signature on open letters espousing liberal causes surfaced as evidence of his alleged disloyalty to the United States. Although loyalty boards twice dismissed the case against him, a third board found his loyalty questionable and he was removed as a member of a study section of the Division of Research Grants and Fellowships of the National Institutes of Health.

Dr. Peters was distinguished by his persistent efforts to apply scientific advances to the treatment of patients. “At the same time this was incorporated in a context of moral dignity so that the application of science to the patient was associated with kindness, with a great deal of concern and followup,” said Donald W. Seldin, M.D. ’43, Professor Emeritus of Internal Medicine at the University of Texas Southwest Medical Center, in his talk, Reflections of a Student of Peters. “The plain fact of the matter is that he was a courageous man and a morally dignified man. He did for the profession what the profession needs, self-criticism, self-policing. Now, hopefully, Dr. Peters’ vision of medicine available to all the people and at high quality will be reinstituted.”

The discussion ranged from his medical contributions to his legal and moral battles. Catherine G. Roraback, LL.B. ’48, a Yale-educated attorney who represented dissenters in the 1950s, noted that Dr. Peters became a target of loyalty boards not because he broke a law, but because he exercised his right of free speech and association. George D. Lundberg, M.D., editor-in-chief of the Journal of the American Medical Association, traced the longstanding acrimony between the Committee of 430 Physicians and the AMA, which vehemently opposed the reforms the committee proposed. Many of those reforms, he said, are now integral pieces of medical practice in this country, such as federal support of medicine and programs such as Medicaid and Medicare.

Richard M. Peters, M.D. ’45, one of Dr. Peters’ sons, described how the loyalty hearings absorbed his father’s final years and, his family believes, shortened his life. Close to a dozen family members traveled to New Haven including Dr. Peters’ granddaughter, Barbara Ann Peters, M.D. ’79.

Franklin H. Epstein, M.D. ’47, professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and Beth Israel Hospital, cited Dr. Peters’ contributions to the study of renal disease, noting that Dr. Peters was interested in the chemical derangements of disease. “It was the measurement of the chemical constituents of body fluids that provided the first of three solid foundation blocks, the cornerstones of Peters’ approach,” Dr. Epstein said. “He understood and appreciated the importance of accurate, impeccable measurement.”

Dr. Peters’ most enduring technical achievement was the introduction into the clinic of the flame photometer, which made possible within minutes accurate measurements of sodium and potassium in serum or urine samples. He used those measurements, an exacting analysis of diet, urine and feces, to treat his patients. Colleagues and students marveled at his ability to take the raw data and synthesize it into a logical framework. “His associates might experiment on animals, but he preferred to concentrate on examining disordered physiology at the bedside with accurate chemical techniques and the power of logical inference,” said Dr. Epstein.

According to Phillip Gorden, M.D., HS ’61-66, the director of the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, Dr. Peters’ studies of body water, electrolytes, and acid-base balance were extremely important in the management of patients with diabetes mellitus.

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