Peter Wright ’60
As a clinician, teacher and researcher, Peter Wright ’60 has devoted more than 50 years to the fields of pediatrics and infectious disease.
At the end of the first year of his residency in pediatrics at Boston Children’s Hospital, Peter Wright ’60 had an opportunity to spend what he thought would be two years at the National Institutes of Health.
That turned into three years (1968-71) at the Laboratory of Infectious Disease at NIH and launched Dr. Wright’s keen interest in the field to which he has since devoted more than 50 years. At the end of his fellowship in infectious disease, Wright took an opportunity to travel to Haiti to work in a rural hospital. He has returned dozens of times in the ensuing years and is currently engaged, at age 79, in developing a maternal-infant healthcare system for Haiti to help the country meet 2030 sustainable development goals established by the United Nations.
Prior to returning to New Hampshire in 2008 to join the Department of Pediatrics at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, Wright spent 35 years in Nashville, where in 1974 he established the Division of Infectious Diseases in the Department of Pediatrics at Vanderbilt. The program is regarded as one of the outstanding pediatric infectious disease programs in the country. It was during those years that Wright established himself as a “triple threat” — as a clinician seeing patients, as a researcher and as a teacher. In the program’s infancy, Dr. Wright and one other colleague made up a clinical staff, which eventually grew to 18 doctors.
“I’m quite proud of that work,” says Wright, a 2022 recipient of the SPS Alumni Association Award. “Many of those who worked with us have gone on to quite remarkable careers. A number of people who were very central to the development of the COVID vaccines were members of our group earlier in their careers.”
In his years in Nashville, Dr. Wright served the director for the Center for International Health (1997-2005); Shedd Professor of Pediatric Infectious Disease (2004-08); professor of microbiology and immunology (1999-2008); and professor of pathology (1998-2008) at Vanderbilt School of Medicine. He also led the Division of Infectious Diseases in the Pediatrics Department until 2008. He currently is professor of pediatrics at Dartmouth’s Geisel School of Medicine, where his work is supported by grants from the Gates Foundation, the Kellogg Foundation, NIH and the World Health Organization (WHO).
Maintaining a clinical practice, Wright says, helped him evaluate firsthand infectious agents that were presenting in his pediatric patients. In the early 1980s, he and a colleague began seeing children who had unexplained recurrent fevers. After describing the disease, they were able to contribute samples from multiple patients, which eventually contributed to identifying genetic markers for what is now known as pediatric fever syndrome. Wright also has dedicated a significant part of his career researching vaccines for respiratory syncytial virus (RSV). In the late 1980s, he spent a year at the WHO in Geneva, where he got a “40,000-foot view of how international health is structured,” including perspective on the polio vaccine. He served for a decade as chairman of the Polio Research Committee, directing efforts at disease eradication.
“I went to [the WHO] to think about appropriate new vaccines to introduce into this global health program,” he says, “and ended up spending a lot of time trying to figure out why the polio vaccine was less effective in developing countries.”
The decision of Wright and his wife, Penny, to leave Vanderbilt for New Hampshire involved a homecoming of sorts. He grew up in New York City before arriving at St. Paul’s School as a Third Former in the fall of 1956, while his wife had roots in Vermont. Wright stayed in New Hampshire to pursue his A.B. in biology and biomedical science from Dartmouth before earning his M.D. from Harvard Medical School. He describes his SPS years as formative. “I’ve always thought I learned how to study and think at St Paul’s,” he says. Among his many career mentors was fellow SPS alumnus John Enders (Form of 1915), a Nobel Prize winner known as the father of modern vaccines.
“He was toward the end of his career at that point,” Wright recalls. “He would sit down at a microscope and look for hours, trying to figure out what was going on with a virus called hepatitis B. Just seeing how he approached science and recognizing the contributions he’d made to polio and other viruses way back at the beginning was just remarkable.”
In his multi-decade career, Wright’s work has earned him many significant honors, including the Children’s Prize in Global Health, the Distinguished Alumni award from Geisel School of Medicine and the Grant W. Liddle Award for Outstanding Contributions in Clinical Research at Vanderbilt. He now adds the SPS Alumni Association Award to his list of accolades.
“It actually means a great deal,” he says, noting that the support of Penny and their sons has been vital to his success, “because St. Paul’s meant so much to me. I have had other honors, but this is quite a special one.”