Local doctor is a heavy hitter in his field

William A. Peck, M.D.

BY PATRICIA CORRIGAN, SPECIAL TO THE JEWISH LIGHT

In May, Dr. William A. Peck was presented with the William Greenleaf Eliot Society’s Search Award at the organization’s 45th annual dinner. Peck, a professor of medicine and director of the Center for Health Policy at Washington University, was honored for “his 36 years of exceptional leadership, vision and invaluable service.” 

Brushing aside congratulations, Peck, 78, turned the talk to baseball. “Tony La Russa gave the keynote address, and he was magnificent,” Peck said. “I’ve always enjoyed baseball. I told the audience that I became a physician because I couldn’t hit. If I could have — well, who knows?” 

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Peck’s scientific contributions include the development of the first method to study directly the structure, function and growth of bone cells; the demonstration of mechanisms that allow hormones to regulate bone cell function; and the examination of the causes of osteoporosis. He has been featured on “The MacNeil/Lehrer Report,” ABC’s “Good Morning America” and “The CBS Morning News.” 

Peck made time recently to talk about his career. 

Were you surprised to receive the Eliot Society’s award?

I do what I am supposed to do, what I enjoy doing. If I make a difference, that’s all the better. 

How did you develop that approach?

It comes from my parents — my mother was a brilliant scholar and my father was a beloved physician — and from all my Jewish relatives. It was a typical credo for Jewish families when I was growing up. 

You were born in New Britain, Conn. Did you always want to be a doctor?

I was trying to play the piano, so I didn’t make up my mind about medicine until I had some first-hand experience. At the age of 17, I ended up in Boston Children’s Hospital with osteomyelitis, a staph infection in the bone marrow. 

How did that experience change you?

In 1950, the hospital was the recipient of kids from other countries who were paralyzed with polio, and their spirits were unbelievable. At the same time, a prominent surgeon there was pioneering a cure for congenital heart disease. Down the hall was a lab figuring out ways to culture the polio virus outside the human body so the virus could be used to prepare a vaccine — and they did it. 

All this happening in one place ignited your passion for medicine? 

Yes. This is what I want to do, I thought then, be in an academic setting where I can make a difference.

You graduated from Harvard, completed medical school at the University of Rochester and then came to Barnes Hospital in 1960, where you completed two years of residency and one year of fellowship. How did it go at Barnes and what did you do next?

I saw the same things going on at Washington University that I had seen at the children’s hospital in Boston, only amplified. Here was my whole universe, and here is where I wanted to work.

I did research for two years at the National Institutes of Health and then returned to Rochester for a while, but I came back in 1976 to Jewish Hospital, eventually serving as a dean, a vice chancellor and president of the Washington University Medical Center. Along the way, I discovered I was not going to be the world’s greatest pianist.

In 2003, you were named director of the Center for Health Policy. What does the Center do? 

We’ve been studying whether employer-sponsored wellness programs are cost effective and whether they work. We also teach, and we participate in national activities in terms of health policy.  And we got involved with the Regional Health Commission here to help organize care for the poor.

What is the biggest health care issue facing this country?

Demand is going to increase as 77 million Baby Boomers enter the hallowed age of the elderly. We have outstanding physicians, great medical schools, hospitals that are well equipped and we lead the world in medical research and pharmaceutical development — but we don’t have universal health insurance. We are not even close.