In 1957, Peter Wilding was 22 and working as a laborer on a building site on the outskirts of Birmingham, England. Once, on a day that was pouring with rain, the electric shovel broke. Wilding spotted the problem—a spade was stuck straight through the cable. He pulled it out and got the shovel working again. The following morning, the crane operator fell and broke his arm while riding his bicycle to work. Impressed by what he had seen the day before, the foreman turned to Wilding.
“He said, ‘Would you like to drive the crane?’ I said, ‘I don't know how to drive a crane.’ And he said, ‘It's easy—just six buttons and be careful,’” said Wilding, professor emeritus in the department of pathology and laboratory medicine at the University of Pennsylvania Medical Center. Wilding climbed the hundred feet to the crane operator's box and found the buttons. “One said ‘up,’ one said ‘down.’ One said ‘out’ and one said ‘in.’ There was ‘right’ and ‘left,’” he said. Within a week, he was navigating the giant machinery.
Wilding is filled with stories like that. They flow from him with such ease, enthusiasm, and good cheer that it is no wonder that Wilding, one of the most eminent clinical chemists of his day, has a reputation as a master storyteller. “I've been to many meetings with Peter and I always want to sit at the table where Peter's sitting because I know the table is not going to be dull. There is going to be one story after another told,” said Laurence Demers, distinguished professor emeritus of pathology and medicine at the Penn State M.S. Hershey Medical Center.
In truth, Wilding's early life was shaped by some of the defining dramas of the 20th century—the Great Depression, World War II, and the Korean War. He came of age, professionally, in the 1960s, just as the automation revolution was getting underway, wresting test tubes out of clinicians' hands and into machines like the AutoAnalyzer. He was in on the ground floor as other innovations—immunological techniques, point-of-care service, molecular diagnostics—were transforming clinical chemistry.
He launched his own transformation while still in his twenties by identifying the first of a novel class of oversized proteins, the macroenzymes, which opened up a whole new field of study. He followed that up decades later by pioneering and patenting, with his close colleague Larry Kricka, the use of microchip technology in the clinical lab—at a time when many thought the proposition quixotic.
“Peter saw the application—he was always the person pushing us forward. He was a visionary in that regard, and then things just snowballed from there in terms of what we did with the ideas,” said Kricka, professor of pathology and laboratory medi- cine at the University of Pennsylvania.
“Those ideas he had, they were not just lucky,” said Michael Astion, professor of laboratory medicine at the University of Washington in Seattle. “He had to fight for those ideas.”
Tall, athletic, his broad face framed by a wave of now-white hair, Wilding appears to take a good fight in his stride. He is gregarious, funny, and proudly—British. “He thinks he speaks the King's English as opposed to us Americans who speak a foreign language,” said Demers.
“We joke that if Peter Wilding and I were both hired as consultants and we both knew the exact same amount, he would get paid twice as much just because he was saying it with a British accent. And he's got fancy suits,” said Astion. Wilding dresses impeccably, even on the golf course, and loves good wines and exotic adventure travel with his wife Audrey.
Yet beneath the urbane and witty exterior, he is, by many accounts, driven. “He loves to succeed. He loves to take an idea from a little seed to fully grown tree. He likes to do that over and over again,” Astion said.
“Whatever he does, he wants to do it to the nth degree. What drives him is perfection. What drives him is seeing something come to fruition, to completion,” said Demers. “That's his personality—he's just a driven individual. And nobody is pushing him more than himself.”
When telling his tales, he often plays up the role of chance—it was an accident that the electric shovel broke one rainy day. But it was Wilding who seized the moment and fixed the problem. It was serendipity that the crane driver fell and broke his arm, but it was no coincidence that Wilding was offered the position. Others might have refused, or tried and failed. Not Wilding.
This habit—of taking twists of fate and bending them to his advantage—can be traced back to Wilding's childhood, which he spent amid the rolling hills and farms of Shropshire County, England, part of a long line of Wildings. Records of their occupancy go back to 1470. In 1934, when Wilding was born, England was in the throes of the Great Depression and on the brink of war. By the early 1940s, the green Shropshire fields would be transformed: barbed wire lined every hedge. Iron railings were torn from each house and thrown into piles of scrap metal. Wilding would transform the metal-strewn scene. He and his friends would pretend the railings were spears. One of them, “thrown by another playful 8-year-old,” made its way into his right thigh, leaving a large oval scar.
During school recess, they would run next door to the parish hall, which served as an Italian prisoner of war camp, and chat with the prisoners. At home, his father, a solid and practical man who loved to read and do crosswords, would leave to work double shifts on the railway, disappearing for hours.
His family struggled to make ends meet even after the war. Despite the hardship, Wilding appears to have had an idyllic childhood. Athletic and energetic, he played all kinds of sports—water polo, long-distance running. He loved rugby and would later play for Birmingham. “I was not necessarily the fastest guy—any success I experienced came from anticipating what was happening with the ball,” he said.
When he was 11, he joined the Scouts and spent summers camping and hiking all over England. He learned to rock climb in northern Wales. “I learned the joy of walking and hiking and the joy of the mountains,” he said. He sang in the church choir—“That's where I got my love of singing”—until his voice broke. As a teenager, he would meet his friends one night a week at the Sabrina Dance Academy. “You had to learn how to dance in those days,” he said.
One day, when he was 13, a neighbor's adult son came by with a chemistry set, complete with test tubes, pipettes, and chemicals like copper sulfate. Wilding loved to mix them up. “It was the joy of getting the different colors,” he said. At school, chemistry came easily to him—he took pleasure in balancing chemical equations. Encouraged by his high school teachers, he set out to become a chemist and was doing preparatory studies at the local technical college when his father died, leaving his mother with very little income. To help out, Wilding, who was 17, left school and found a job as a medical technician in Birmingham.
It was the early 1950s. Lots of his friends were being drafted to fight in the Korean War so it was no surprise when the envelope came in the mail telling him to report to the army. For Wilding, the army experience would be transformative. He was placed into the Royal Army Medical Corps and embarked on a rigorous six-month course covering chemistry, histology, bacteriology, and hematology. He was posted to Korea but 24 hours before he was to leave, he was told that he would be going to Hong Kong to work for a research lab studying tropical sprue, which was afflicting many soldiers. There, he would gain a kind of renaissance training in clinical chemistry—performing all kinds of tests, not just for the researchers but for the full-service pathology lab.
When he returned to England, he knew that he wanted to pursue chemistry, though he had no thought of a PhD. “I thought I was destined for industry,” he said. He took a job as a laborer on a construction site and spent two years taking night courses to prepare himself for the university entrance exams. He was spending a third year studying French, a university requirement, when two things happened. He was promoted to crane operator. And he got married.
He first met Audrey before the war, when they were both medical technicians, and saw her again after he returned from Hong Kong. “The rest is history,” he said. She would be Wilding's mainstay as he pursued his studies, his family life—they would have three kids, Stuart, Elisabeth, and Matthew—and his career. “He really respects her judgment and what she thinks,” said Demers.
That career has taken Wilding from academics to industry and back and forth again. It would also take him back and forth between England and America. Looking at the to-and-fro, it might seem that he was blown by the winds of fate. In truth, Wilding has a knack for creating opportunity. For example, after finishing his undergraduate studies, he worked in industry, which he found ‘boring as hell,’ so he took a position as a senior clinical biochemist at Birmingham General Hospital. One day, a patient came into the clinic exhibiting extraordinarily high levels of amylase but her pancreas, which normally secretes the enzyme, appeared to be normal. Wilding probed the conundrum and discovered that the reason the woman was not excreting the amylase was that it was too big—it was bound to globulin.
The finding, which became the basis for his PhD, would be replicated in labs all over the world. It would also open doors for Wilding. After a two-year stint at the University of Southern California School of Medicine in Los Angeles, he returned to Birmingham where, in 1972, he joined the Wolfson Institute, then a fledgling organization. Working with Tom Whitehead, one of his most valued mentors, he helped turn the institute into a hotbed of multidisciplinary activity in part by sharing his expansive philosophy: “Think big, be creative. Be avant garde and adventurous,” said Kricka. One of his most creative moves was to help bring Kricka to the Wolfson.
In 1977, he left and came to America, where he took a series of positions in industry, first at Technicon Corporation and then at Smith Kline Beckman. In 1986, he was invited by Leonard Jarrett, who he had met years earlier, to move to the department of pathology and laboratory medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. Once again, Wilding recruited Kricka. The pair, working with Jay Zemel and colleagues, would embark on their microtechnology work—and one of the most productive partnerships in the history of clinical chemistry.
“Usually guys in his position, they've got to choose guys who are stupider than them. He wasn't afraid to choose smart people and gain from the collaboration. He probably wouldn't have done microchips alone—it's the teamwork,” Astion said. Part of Wilding's secret may be just that: spotting good ideas and spotting good people.
Wilding would be the first to agree. “Much of my success is due to the people who work with me—including students and postdocs,” he said.
He retired in 2003, on the heels of an extraordinary decade in which he and his colleagues filed nearly 20 patents—patents that are still earning royalties. He and Audrey live in a beautiful art-filled house, with horse country on one side and mainline Philadelphia on the other. When they are not traveling to exotic locations like the east coast of South America or the upper Amazon, or visiting their five grandchildren—who are spread between Brooklyn, Florida, and Oxford, England—Wilding rises around 7 AM and fetches the paper. After finishing a sudoku puzzle, he might tend to business. He still consults for the University of Pennsylvania and teaches residents in the pathology department. As chair of the history division of the American Association for Clinical Chemistry, he has been collaring colleagues to appear in a film that he is making.
Some days he gets up even earlier and heads to the golf course, where he displays his trademark energy and zeal. “He still walks the golf course, which is quite a feat because most of us have retired to a cart, but not Peter—Peter's got to walk with his chest sticking out,” said Demers. “And I can tell you, he's still very, very competitive. I've been playing my whole life. He started later in life so I'm a better golfer than him, but don't tell him that. Well, we get on a golf course and he won't give you a two-inch putt, if it comes down to it. When he misses a shot, it's like the end of the world. That's the way he is. There's something that makes him tick, that just pushes him to the nth degree. It's a wonderful thing.”
Sponsored by the Department of Laboratory Medicine, Boston Children's Hospital
- © 2012 The American Association for Clinical Chemistry