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Peter Wright, M.D., '65: Master builder
Thanksgiving Day of 2007 found Vanderbilt pediatric infectious diseases specialist Dr. Peter Wright peeling bark from felled hemlock trees in Norwich, Vt. No, he wasn't searching for infectious organisms that live on trees. He and his wife, Penelope, are building a new home on a 12-acre wooded lot in Norwich, and the trees—as well as other local and earth-friendly materials—will soon be incorporated into the house.
Wright has been a builder most of his life—of houses (he even worked construction a few summers in college), of research initiatives, and of health-care programs both in the U.S. and abroad. At Vanderbilt, he built a leading center for the study of pediatric infectious diseases. Internationally, he has built healthcare and vaccination programs for children in Haiti and other countries. Now, he's building a new role for himself that blends advocating for global health with holding parttime faculty positions at both Dartmouth and Vanderbilt.
That doesn't leave him with much time for working on the new house, he admits. He's quick to note that his wife—who completed a two-week course at the Yestermorrow Design/Build School inWarren, Vt., and is the project's general contractor—is doing the lion's share of the work. But he helps out when he can.
Like any accomplished builder, Wright knows that "you start with excellent and innovative materials and personnel. You have a clear understanding and dream of the structure you are going to build. And then," he adds, "you sit back and watch it unfold—sometimes in surprising ways." When he began assembling materials and personnel to build Vanderbilt's Division of Pediatric Infectious Diseases in 1974, he never imagined the impact it would have. Dr. James Crowe, a Vanderbilt expert on respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), calls it "the most successful pediatric infectious diseases division in the country." Others have agreed.
"The credit goes to the people who are there," insists Wright. "I may have had some role in attracting them and keeping them there and being supportive of their efforts . . . and giving them good advice
in research direction. But," he repeats, "it's really the people who are there." The 18-member division includes a broad range of physician- investigators who provide clinical care as well as do basic research on a multitude of infectious organisms and diseases, from Varicella zoster (which causes chickenpox and shingles) to HIV/AIDS.
One of Wright's favorite "building" projects was a pediatric vaccine clinic that provided comprehensive care at any given time to about 200 children up to five years of age. Though he's a man of few words on many subjects, it doesn't take much to getWright talking about this initiative. Parents could enroll their children in trials of new vaccines as they became available, he says. In addition, "we informed the parents when they joined the clinic of our interest in obtaining small samples of blood and nasal washes—snot, if you will—with each respiratory
illness." The clinic ran for nearly 30 years and not only provided "excellent pediatric care" but, adds Wright, also served "as a testing ground for newer vaccines and as a 'laboratory' for defining the impact of various respiratory diseases." More than 100 research papers came out of the clinic's work.
The foundation for Wright's career was laid long before he came to Dartmouth. He traces his interest in medicine to his father, Dr. Myron Wright, a 1938 DMS graduate, and his passion for infectious diseases to a three-year stint under Dr. Robert Chanock at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Laboratory of Infectious Diseases. A vaccine pioneer, Chanock identified RSV, which causes cold-like symptoms and bronchitis in healthy children but life-threatening pneumonia in premature infants, youngsters with congenital heart disease, and people who are immunocompromised.
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Laura Carter is the associate editor of Dartmouth Medicine magazine.