Faces of the UI: Peter Nathan has 40 years eyeing the effect of booze

BY TESSA McLEAN | APRIL 03, 2009 7:37 AM

UI Professor Emeritus Peter Nathan just can’t stop thinking about alcohol.

But the former interim UI president and provost isn’t thinking about it in the way most UI students do on the weekends. He has spent more than 40 years conducting alcohol-related research, and he was recently appointed to the newly formed 23-person UI Alcohol Steering Committee made up of UI officials, students, and community members to battle binge drinking.

He said focusing on curbing excessive drinking without concentrating on prohibition or underage drinking is a more important and realistic problem.

“It’s as big here as it is any where in the country. There are probably no more than a handful of universities with problems as substantial as the University of Iowa’s,” the 73-year-old said. “Because of all of that research and knowing what a big problem it is, I’ve been involved in efforts to do something about it.”

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According one of Nathan’s studies published in 2001, 70 percent of UI students qualify as binge drinkers and 90 percent drink.

UI Provost Wallace Loh said he asked Nathan to be a member of the UI Alcohol Steering Committee because of his expertise on the subject.

“He is an incredible resource for the UI to have,” Loh said. “He is a wonderful person to work with, he is still actively involved [at the UI] and he gives a lot of time and energy for free.”

Nathan’s fascination with alcohol studies began with his first job at Harvard Medical School: working at an alcohol clinic on Tuesday nights. As a therapist, he worked two hours each evening for several years, learning from his patients, writing, and researching.

After deciding he deserved a salary raise, he said, he applied for a large grant in 1967 that enabled him to open his own four-bed inpatient unit for studying and observing alcoholics.

“At that time, almost nothing was known about alcohol from an objective, empirical point of view, so I was one of the very first people to study alcoholism in a scientific way,” Nathan said as Buford — his Australian shepherd — sat attentively below his beige armchair. “There were a lot of theories and prejudices and opinions but very little data based on scientific method.”

From there, Nathan spent 20 years as director of the Center of Alcohol Studies at Rutgers University and two years as senior health program officer at the MacArther Foundation.

Feeling like he needed a change, he sought the vice president for Research position at the UI. But university officials had other plans.

Officials encouraged him to apply for the vice president for Academic Affairs, a higher position with more responsibilities.

Nathan was hired and quickly promoted to provost, a role he served in for roughly five years. He spent six months as acting UI president between Hunter Rawlings and Mary Sue Coleman.

“It is easier to be president than to be the provost, because as president, you are one more step farther removed from the problems of the university,” he said.

Though he was offered presidencies at other colleges after his UI term, Nathan decided to remain in the psychology department to continue to research and teach. In his retirement, he reviews all proposals for publications in psychology, psychiatry, social work, and other related fields for the Oxford University Press, which he said keeps him busy.

Nathan lives with wife Anne Helene Skinstad and their three Australian Shepherds in a home overlooking the Iowa River. He has five children and seven grandchildren. Nathan met his wife in 1984 while in Norway on academic travel.

His wife, a UI associate professor of community and behavioral health, said her husband is warm, supportive, and very family oriented.

“He is a person who isn’t a self-promoter,” Skinstad said. “I was most proud when in 1990 he stood on the steps of the Old Capitol and publicly welcomed the [lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender] community onto campus.”

Skinstad said the that community had previously not felt included on campus and, as provost, Nathan welcomed them.

The St. Louis native spends five months a year in Harpswell, Maine, which is closer to four of his children, all of whom reside on the East Coast.

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