Memorial Resolution of the Faculty the University of Wisconsin on the Death of Emeritus Professor William Harold Peterson 

(Faculty Document 1435; October 3, 1960)

William Harold Peterson, Emeritus Professor of Biochemistry, died suddenly on July 1, 1960, after a half century of service to the University of Wisconsin. He was a great teacher, and a pioneer in the field of biochemistry of micro-organisms.

Professor Peterson was born in Libertyville, New York, on November 14, 1880. He received his B.S. degree from Wesleyan University in 1907, and his M.A. from Columbia in 1909. He came to Wisconsin in 1909 to teach chemistry to Home economics students and to work toward a Ph.D. degree, which he received in 1913. After about six months at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute at Berlin, he returned to Wisconsin in September 1914 as an assistant professor, to begin a long and fruitful academic career. During the first world war he worked on bacterial production of acetone, and after the war, in collaboration with Professor E.B. Fred, he began the work on microorganisms that was to make him famous. In 1951 he reached the age of formal retirement, but he was active in research until his death.

Professor Peterson published more than 300 scientific papers, most of which dealt with some phase of the chemistry of microorganisms. He became a international authority on bacterial fermentations, on microbial metabolism, and on antibiotic production. He played a leading role in developing the production of penicillin during the second world war. His laboratory became a center of research and training in fermentation biochemistry.

Perhaps the greatest contribution made by Professor Peterson was the excellent training he gave to his graduate students. More than fifty Ph.D. degrees have been awarded for work done under his direction. Through his genuine warmth and interest in people, he was able to ignite in his students the same enthusiasm for research, the same regard for high scientific and ethical standards, and the same zeal in searching for the truth that characterized his own work. Today, the leaders in the field of microbial chemistry include a startlingly high percentage of Professor Peterson's former students.

His ability to select promising men as graduate students was phenomenal. This ability was useful to the whole University community during the long period of Professor Peterson's service on the scholarship and fellowship committee of the graduate school.

Professor Peterson married Mary Lambert Shine in 1926, and they shared fully their fondness for outdoor physical activity. Tennis, swimming and ice skating were favorite sports. Their great interest in ornithology led them to spend much time in the woods and fields they loved. Professor Peterson led a vigorous life, both physically and professionally. He had an enormous capacity for hard work and a boundless enthusiasm for research and teaching.

During his lifetime, William Harold Peterson passed on his ideas, his methods, his enthusiasm, and his interests to a large body of younger scientists. These students are now ably carrying on the work he pioneered. He leaves behind not an empty field, but a large and vigorous plantation.

Memorial Committee:

  • I.L. Baldwin
  • Robert H. Burris
  • Noble Clark
  • Chester P. Higby
  • Marvin J. Johnson (Chairman)

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