Michael J. Peach- The Leadership Years

Some people, distinctly unusual people, lead lives which transcend individual accomplishments of the times. The fruit of their labor is multiplied over and over again now and for generations to come. Mike Peach was such a person. Mike made monumental individual contributions to science over two decades, but his real impact was in the giving – the giving of his total self to others. Medical students, graduate students, residents-in-training, postdoctoral fellows, faculty, research scientists from other institutions, family and friends. Indeed there are very few of us who were not touched by Mike in some special way.

Mike had an extraordinary intellect and was eager to share. He had the unique ability to bring people together as colleagues in science, and they become true friends. I was fortunate that shortly after my arrival at Virginia Mike sought me out to begin an interaction. As with so many of Mike’s close colleagues, a large number of whom are here, I had been trained in clinical investigation. We are amazed by his knowledge, his thought process, his ability to provide direction. He made us think in new and different ways. This was one of his unique contributions: that he put a large measure of his energy into interacting with clinicians. In the process he himself learned clinical medicine. He could have conducted clinical rounds and contributed a great deal. Many in fact thought he had an MD degree. His death was announced nationwide by the American Hearth Association as Michael J. Peach, M.D. He was the most insightful person I have ever met. I, and many other clinicians, learned basic science from Mike. We collaborated heavily over the years. I learned the value of linkage of fundamental discovery at the cell and molecular level to the understanding of human physiology and disease.

More than anyone else I know in this country or abroad, Mike stood for cohesion in science and medicine. The value of relevance in science, grouping people with diverse backgrounds together so that the sum would be greater than the individual parts, or to quote Mike, “2 + 2 = 5”. As we added to our group, we learned and contributed together to the fulfillment of all. Mike was the catalyst and the sustaining force. Other groups were formed with Mike’s influence and research thrived for the whole institution under his leadership.

One of Mike’s most valuable contributions was his willingness to provide constructive criticism to those working with him. Whether criticizing an oral or a written presentation, he was always able to cut straight through the gobbledygook, as he sometimes called it, to the heart of the subject at hand. He would strive for a clearly defined hypothesis, a straightforward exposition of the data, a coherent discussion, an unambiguous conclusion. As a young faculty member, I remember receiving back from him a typical manuscript draft with red ink in between each double spaced line and in several swirled layers around the margins. As a more senior faculty member, I received them, too. Many of my colleagues will recall similar circumstances for themselves. Mike helped us all. He cared!

Mike was a constant guide for me and for countless others. His opinion was sought in my office, in his department, in the medical school, across the University and across the Nation. His advice was always accompanied by a special boyish sense of humor which fostered a spirit of lightheartedness and comradeship. He was always available – willing to chair a new committee, to review a tall stack of grant applications, to develop a new program, or just to sit and serve, as he did on countless occasions, as a bouncing board for new ideas. He was a great listener, a great promoter of individuals, and a great advocate for excellence and for the institution.

Throughout his career, he provided major contributions to our understanding of the way blood vessels contract and dilate. His work was less flashy than steady, logical, pertinent and lasting. He was flexible, always at the cutting edge of new technology. Last Friday at our working lab meeting, Mike presented last week’s findings from his laboratory. He and his colleagues cloned the gene for nitric oxide synthase. Nitric oxide synthase produces the vascular relaxing factor, or dilator, in blood vessels. To clone this gene, he developed a highly creative approach with sophisticated new techniques. The results were nothing short of spectacular. All we could say was “Fantastic, Mike”. Otherwise we were overwhelmed and speechless. Mike was happy and proud of the work of his fellows and his laboratory team. It was among the best work of his career and undoubtedly will lead to new methods for controlling vascular disorders, such as high blood pressure. Later that evening, Mike reviewed a research talk I was to have given this past Monday. As usual, he provided cogent and valuable advice.

We all loved Mike. His passing is a great loss. Perhaps Dr. Damian O’Connell put it best: “Losing Mike is like crossing a great sea in a sailboat, and suddenly the rudder and the sail are taken away”. But, he would not have wanted us to become cynical, despondent or lost. He would want us to go on – collaborating, sharing, promoting, producing, insisting on excellence and, above all, the giving – the giving of our total selves.


Robert M. Carey, M.D.
March 19, 1992