CAMBRIDGE, Mass. (February 19, 2012) – The entire Whitehead Institute community is profoundly saddened by news of Friday night’s passing of John Pratt, the Institute’s former Associate Director and a central figure in establishing what would become one of the world’s preeminent biomedical research institutions.
“John was at the heart of the development of Whitehead Institute,” says Whitehead Founding Director David Baltimore. “One of the luckiest things that ever happened to me was that I was introduced to him.”
The year was 1981, and businessman and philanthropist Jack Whitehead was partnering with David in a bold experiment to create an independent biomedical research institute with a strong affiliation with a major university. David’s daughter, then a student at Shady Hill School in Cambridge, had a classmate whose father had heard about plans for the Institute. This gentleman approached David, telling him he knew the perfect person to run this new venture’s administration. That perfect person, of course, was John.
“I took the suggestion seriously, and while interviewing John, it was immediately apparent he was the right guy,” David recalls. “To this day, I give my daughter credit for finding John.”
Often referred to as “Employee Number 1,” John began consulting to David and Jack in 1981 in the days running up to the Institute’s founding. (Upon his retirement 25 years later, he famously stated that he had to begin consulting because, at the time, “there was nothing to be an employee of.”)
John brought with him a remarkable depth and breadth of administrative experience. He earned a BE degree from Yale University in 1963, after which he served five years in the United States Navy, leaving in 1969 with the rank of lieutenant. He received his MBA from Harvard University in 1971 and began a nearly 10-year career in state government. He served in the Executive Office of Human Services of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, first as Budget Director and then as Assistant Secretary for Fiscal Affairs. From 1979 to 1980 he was the Commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Public Welfare.
“He understood what we were trying to do and what we would be up against,” David says. “I remember talking to his former employers, including the Governor (Michael Dukakis) and everybody said the same thing: ‘John can run anything.’"
David credits John’s vast problem-solving skills, sound judgment, and supreme competence not only for getting the Institute off the ground, but also for establishing the kind of culture at Whitehead that we cherish to this day and endeavor to preserve.
“John was just terrific, and I needed him so badly because in my own background, I had never managed anything more than my own laboratory,” David notes. “He was so solid and had such strength. He taught me a huge lesson that I share with those who will listen: that filling that position (the head of administration) is the most important thing a new director can do.”
Fortunately for Whitehead Founding Member Gerry Fink, that most important task had been completed so ably when he succeeded David Baltimore as Director in 1990. Gerry, like David before him, concedes that he learned much from John in the ways of administration.
“On many occasions, he was my mentor for how you run things,” Gerry says. “He had a clear vision of what Whitehead was about, and it turned out I had the same vision.”
Gerry and John partnered on some of the most important initiatives ever undertaken at Whitehead, including the establishment of the Whitehead/MIT Center for Genome Research and expansion of our building and animal facility to accommodate the needs of a rapidly growing and increasingly impactful research program.
“I believe these things would not have happened were it not for the synergy between John and me,” Gerry says. “We formed a very effective leadership team. He used to come to me when someone on the faculty wanted more resources and he’d say, ‘Is this good science?’ If my answer was ‘yes’, somehow we’d find the money for it. If the answer was ‘no,’ well the money couldn’t be found.”
Susan Lindquist, who followed Gerry as Director, recalls that John’s presence here was a factor in her decision to move from Chicago to Whitehead.
“John Pratt was a remarkable administrator, with a national reputation among scientists, for his ethics and his abilities,” Susan notes. “In fact, when I was considering coming to the Whitehead as Director, I asked for advice from the Director of another superb independent research institute. The first thing he said was, ‘Well, you’d have John Pratt to handle the administration, and they don’t get much better than that!’ I remain very grateful for all John did for us in so many, many ways.”
As Director now, when I reflect—as I often do—on Whitehead’s remarkable camaraderie, collaborative spirit, its collegiality, and the regard we have for integrity as a defining virtue, I think of John. His words and his actions were consistently driven by his ideals, and they were high. When we think about Whitehead Institute and its commitment to excellence, we often speak of the key parts played by Jack Whitehead and David Baltimore, but it’s pretty clear there was a third person in the mix, a person who was executing on their vision and putting flesh on the bone. That person was John Pratt.
“I was crazy about John as a human being,” says Susan Whitehead, Vice Chair of the Institute’s Board of Directors. “He was a person of the highest integrity and dignity and fairness and decency. He was the embodiment of all those things. When he was involved in something, you knew there would be quality and that things would never go off the rails. He was a very high quality person, just a very fine human being.”
Susan adds that John was universally regarded in this way, possessing a steady hand that set the tone for Institute administration. He was, she says, “a remarkable person, an old-fashioned elder statesman, trustworthy to the core, with sound judgment.”
Among the administrators for whom John set a tone was Marcia Glatt, Whitehead’s Procurement Director. John hired her in 1988. Today she says that the 15 years she worked for John were transformative for her professionally.
“I learned so much from him,” she says. “He was my mentor. He was such an honest man, a man of integrity who cared a great deal about those who worked here. From the moment I met him, he made it clear that the science always comes first, but he made us feel that we were all part of the same team, doing whatever it would take to get something done.”
Lest anyone believe that John was all business, his love of outdoor adventures, particularly at high altitudes, was legendary. He was equally at home in the White Mountains or the Himalayas, and was a regular visitor to both. During his many hiking and climbing trips, he formed a particularly close bond with Whitehead Members Rick Young, Rudolf Jaenisch, and Paul Matsudaira, all of whom shared John’s passion for excursions and continued their sojourns even after John’s retirement in 2006.
Paul recalls that their times together out on the hiking trails were not just about building friendship and camaraderie. For him, they provided opportunities to seek John’s valuable input.
“It gave us all a chance to talk through things with John,” Paul says. “We could discuss our work at Whitehead, and he would help us think about how our ideas might be implemented at the Institute, how we might work in conjunction with MIT, things like that. He was a mentor. He taught us how to forge relationships. He just had this wealth of experience and expertise that he was willing and able to offer gladly to anyone who sought it.”
“Of course John was absolutely essential at Whitehead Institute, but on a totally different level, he could lead us on trips through Nepal,” recalls Rudolf. “We went twice, spending four weeks living in tents both times. He organized everything because he had skills we simply did not have, and we totally trusted him. He became a lifelong friend to all of us through this.”
“What was remarkable about John was that the leadership qualities he demonstrated at Whitehead continued to show through in an environment completely foreign to us,” says Rick of their trips to the Himalayas. “Ultimately, John was the voice of reason. He listened to everyone, made a rational, pragmatic pronouncement of how we should proceed, and everyone just fell in behind him.”
Such was the case for all of us fortunate enough to have known and worked with John—and we did so enthusiastically and without regret. We will miss him terribly.
According to John’s family, a memorial service will be held in March.
– David Page
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Tags: genomics, molecular biology