Case Western Reserve’s scientists mourn passing of kindred spirit

Thomas Peterson appreciated faculty who shared his curiosity, creativity

Photo of Drew Adams and Tom Peterson
Drew Adams, an assistant professor in the Department of Genetics and Genome Sciences, with Thomas Peterson

Thomas Peterson loved laboratories. 

Whether the site of invention was a high-tech space in the Biomedical Research Building or one built in his own home, Peterson delighted in inquiry and experimentation—as well as discussions with people who shared his passions.

The Northeast Ohio inventor and entrepreneur died earlier this month at 85, and those on campus who had the opportunity to interact with Peterson are mourning his passing.

“Tom was both an incredible supporter of science and an accomplished scientist himself,” said Drew Adams, an assistant professor in the Department of Genetics and Genome Sciences. 

Adams was among those Peterson would visit on campus, eager to learn about the researcher’s latest work and see the state-of-the-art equipment applied to small molecule drug discovery. Adams and his close collaborator Paul Tesar also returned the favor, visiting Peterson’s own scientific space. 

But Peterson’s interests at the university stretched beyond Adams’ high-throughput screening machines. He also served as a member of the medical school’s Dean’s Visiting Committee, Commission to Advance Academic Medicine and Cancer Council, and was a founding member of the Brain Health Council. 

Those who knew Peterson well remember his significant contributions to the groups’ discussions.

“He loved insight and creative integration in biomedical and physical sciences,” said Stan Gerson, interim dean of the School of Medicine and director of the Case Comprehensive Cancer Center. “From his own experiences, he understood that those elements represent the best way to address such complex challenges as neurodegenerative disease and cancer—and, ultimately, bring promising solutions to patients.”

Peterson’s interest in science and innovation emerged early. By the time he was 13, he had filed a patent for a perpetual calendar that the federal government approved within three years. He attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), but had to return to Cleveland before graduating when his father became ill. Peterson joined Preformed Line Products, the now-global company his father had founded after inventing an advanced protective rod to cover conducting lines for electric utilities.

The younger Peterson stayed for a decade, but continued to pursue an interest in photography that had been inspired by one of his MIT professors, Hal “Doc” Edgerton, later renowned for his work with strobe lighting devices and contributions to sonar technology. Peterson eventually founded Motion Picture Sound Inc., which provided audio services for corporate and government projects as well as Hollywood movies such as A Christmas Story. He later published journal articles with MIT faculty involving aspects of electric charges.

Peterson also was an avid reader and collector of books. Over time his library grew to include several thousand volumes, including some dating back hundreds of years and first editions of works by Franklin and Galileo. 

At Case Western Reserve Peterson’s interest also spanned multiple disciplines, among them physics and geology, the Dittrick Medical History Museum, and the sound technology of the systems used at the Milton and Tamar Maltz Performing Arts Center. Still, in his later years, he was particularly interested in work against some of the world’s most daunting medical challenges. Among them was multiple sclerosis, a prominent focus of the work of Adams and Tesar. 

“His support hugely impacted my lab’s work and the work of so many of my colleagues,” Adams said. “His warmth and enthusiasm will be dearly missed.”