Monday, April 02, 2007

In belated memoriam: Donald E. Pickering, M.D.

Working my way through a list of potential interview candidates for the OHSU Oral History Program, I came across a notice of the death of Donald E. Pickering, M.D., former professor of pediatrics here at the University of Oregon Medical School and first director of the Oregon Regional Primate Research Center. Pickering apparently passed away in Seattle, WA, on July 19, 2006, aged 83.

I first heard Pickering's name shortly after I started work here as History of Medicine Librarian in 2003, as I was processing a previously recorded oral history interview; his name shall ever be linked in my mind with the phrase used by that oral history interviewee: "The Pickering Debacle," it was called, and whatever it was (I didn't know at the time), it sure didn't sound good.

When Pickering came to UOMS in in the 1957, he was only the second Markle Scholar to come to the university (the first, John E. Harris, went on to join the faculty at the University of Minnesota Medical School). When UOMS and the Medical Research Foundation were granted funding to build the Primate Center in 1960, Pickering was selected to be its first director. In 1962, when members of the National Science Advisory Council came to assess the Center's progress, they "were full of praise" for Pickering, noting that "he already has earned a reputation both as a scientist and as an administrator" (Oregon Journal, Dec. 11, 1962).

But the honeymoon would soon be over. On January 5, 1963, Pickering resigned his post, citing a "lack of communication" with the MRF and Dean David W.E. Baird, which had "created insurmountable difficulties to the orderly growth" of the Center (Oregonian, Jan. 6, 1963). Dr. E.S. West, co-principal investigator on the Primate Center grant, was named acting director.

It appeared that Pickering had the support of his staff: an article in the Portland Reporter (Jan. 11, 1963) said that "Intercession by Gov. Mark Hatfield in the supplanting of Dr. Donald Pickering as director ... has been requested by 101 of the 120 scientists and supporting personnel at the center." Hatfield refused to get involved directly, only noting that he hoped a deal could be worked out whereby Pickering could stay on at the Center. Pickering had, in fact, intended to stay on as scientist and co-principal investigator, merely giving up his role as director; but by late January he told the media that "an attempt has been made to relieve him of his other duties at the center"--a move he initially refused to recognize.

By August, however, it was clear that it was time to go; Pickering left Oregon that month to join the Delta Regional Primate Center at Tulane University.

We never will get a chance to hear Dr. Pickering's side of the story, but others have been willing to share their impressions of the whole affair. If you're interested in hearing some subjective analyses, check out the oral history interviews which mention Pickering.

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