Donor Highlight: From MBL "Brat" to Scientist to Donor

Photo of Margaret and Peter Armstrong
Margaret and Peter Armstrong

Peter Armstrong was just six years old when he made his first visit to Woods Hole in June of 1945. It must have been a relief to arrive at the MBL after enduring the two-day drive with his parents and younger brother, Samuel, from their home in Syracuse, New York, where his father, Philip, was chair of the Department of Anatomy at the Syracuse University College of Medicine.

The Armstrong family had a beginning of sorts at the MBL. Philip Armstrong started studying at the lab in the 1920s. It was there that he met his wife, Louise, then a graduate student. Phil spent most summers at the MBL during the 1930s and returned as a regular summer investigator in 1945. He went on to serve as MBL director from 1959 to 1966.

Peter fondly recalls those summers, calling himself one of a "large cadre of MBL brats" in Woods Hole. "Basically you could have free range over the village—some of our detractors might have said we were feral. I remember it with very warm memories."

Some would say that Peter, coming from a family of scientists, was genetically imprinted in biology and biodiversity. Some of his earliest memories, both in Woods Hole and Syracuse, were of discovering science.

"My parents were certainly an influence," says Peter. "They weren’t pushing science, but it was in the air that we breathed, it was spontaneous. I was very fascinated in the diversity of animals and plants. I always had terrariums and aquariums stocked with locally obtained plants, fish, and frogs."

Later, Peter was inspired by Albert Szent-Györgyi, the Nobel Laureate who led the MBL’s Institute for Muscle Research, who believed that biophysics would have an important future in biology. In 1961 Peter came back to the MBL, this time as a student, to take the summer course in Invertebrate Zoology. It was there that he met his wife, Margaret.

After completing his Ph.D. at The Johns Hopkins University, Peter joined the faculty at the University of California, Davis in 1966, where he still works today.

In 1975, 30 years after he made his first trip to Woods Hole with his parents, Peter set up his own MBL summer lab. Aside from two summers in the early 1980s while he was on sabbatical at Oxford, Peter and Margaret have returned every summer since. Peter’s research interest is in comparative immunology, specifically the analysis of proteins of the innate immune system that show evolutionary conservation, with proteins present in diverse taxa of metazoans, including vertebrates (and humans), arthropods, and mollusks.

Peter’s MBL research has focused on immunity in long-lived arthropods like lobsters, which can live 80 years, and horseshoe crabs, which can live to be 25. "It is presumed that long-lived animals with an extended period before sexual maturation require an especially effective immune system to allow them to survive the extended period between embryogenesis to sexual maturity and their own opportunity to have offspring," says Peter.

Over the years, Margaret has worked in the laboratory with Peter on various research projects.

During the last four decades, Peter has served the MBL as a Trustee, Corporation Member, and volunteer on many committees—he currently is serving on the Whitman Center Advisory Committee. He also has sent many of his graduate students to the MBL courses.

"I’m a great fan of the courses," says Peter. "I’m a student of Woods Hole and have gotten to see, up close and personal, how excellent the courses really are. They can be a transformative event in the life of a young biologist."

In 1998, Peter and Margaret established a $100,000 charitable remainder unitrust for the benefit of the MBL. "The motivation was partly our love of the MBL and partly a good opportunity because we had inherited some stock from a family member," says Peter. "We thought it was far better to donate this to the MBL so that the entire principal was available for use than pay high taxes."

Last summer Peter and Margaret also made a donation to the Whitman Center Endowment Fund, an initiative of the Catalyst Campaign, whose goal is to build program and endowment support for visiting research at the MBL.

"Being a part of the Whitman Center has been enormously valuable for me," explains Peter. "MBL is a source of inspiration. I look around me and there is this large cadre of scientists in my age group still belly-up to the lab bench doing experiments. A very large fraction of the papers I publish are MBL-related research. That’s one of the real advantages for me traveling across the continent to the MBL each summer."



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