John Pratt, at 70; helped to launch Whitehead Institute


Between college and graduate school, John Pratt got a different kind of education when he served on the staff of Hyman Rickover, the legendary admiral who developed the Navy’s nuclear submarine program.

“The admiral always kept his staff clearly focused on their duties,’’ Mr. Pratt told the Globe in 1979. “Nobody ever sat around waiting for a decision to be made.’’

No one had to wait long for Mr. Pratt to offer strong direction, either. In state government, he rose quickly to become welfare commissioner. At the Whitehead Institute in Cambridge, his organizational skills created a sound foundation to launch the organization’s groundbreaking biomedical research.


“He really made the institute happen,’’ said Susan Whitehead, vice chairwoman of the board of directors and daughter of the institute’s founder. “John was there from before Day One and was responsible for all of the administrative hiring and building an institution, really from the ground floor up. More than that, he set just a magnificent tone. He was a person of the highest intelligence and decency, solid as a rock. He was the person you wanted to have with you at any tough time.’’

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Mr. Pratt, who served in state agencies under three governors and spent 25 years as associate director of the Whitehead Institute, where he was the first person the founders hired, died of prostate cancer Feb. 18 in his Cambridge home.

He was 70.

Reserved at times, Mr. Pratt spoke in precise sentences that could be as spare as the air in New Hampshire’s White Mountains or the 17,000-foot passes in the Himalayas where he liked to hike.

At his family’s retreat on Squam Lake in New Hampshire, he introduced his children and friends to the joys of sailing and hiking. Mr. Pratt also organized treks with colleagues and friends to Nepal and Africa. Nothing eroded his enthusiasm for life.


“He was climbing in 18 inches of snow on Mount Monadnock in New Hampshire three and half months after his hip was replaced,’’ said Stephen Bradley, a longtime friend and a professor emeritus at Harvard Business School who added with admiration, “that’s sort of pushing the envelope, to me.’’

John Salvati, a former colleague in state agencies, said Mr. Pratt “was clear in what he wanted, and he held you to high standards, but he didn’t do it in an oppressive, top-down way.’’

Mr. Pratt, Salvati said, “had a good way about him. You never saw John lose his cool, but you also never saw him miss getting his point across. And there was always this twinkle in his eye.’’

Indeed, though Mr. Pratt worked with some of the sharpest minds in science and government, he drew inspiration from the less lofty intellectual musings of the star of the animated TV show “The Simpsons.’’

“His motto was, ‘Anything you need to know in life you can learn from Homer Simpson,’ ’’ said Mr. Pratt’s wife, Suzanne. “He watched the show every night, even the reruns. I would say, ‘Haven’t you seen this one before?’ And he would say, ‘I don’t know, but it’s still good.’ ’’


Born in New York City, Mr. Pratt was a great-grandson of the cofounder of Pratt & Whitney, the Connecticut jet engine manufacturer.

Mr. Pratt went to Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire and graduated in 1963 with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from Yale University, where he met Bradley.

“We chose not to be roommates, largely because John said, ‘Well, if we’re not roommates, we can stay friends.’ It probably contributed to us staying friends for years,’’ said Bradley, who also joined Mr. Pratt on treks to distant destinations.

After serving as a lieutenant in the Navy, Mr. Pratt went to Harvard Business School. He graduated in 1971 with a master’s in business administration, but didn’t follow classmates in the rush to executive suites.

“He was always proud of the fact that he brought the average income of the graduates down,’’ Bradley said. “He had an agenda for social programs and went into government.’’

In 2006, Mr. Pratt retired from the Whitehead Institute, where he was known as employee number one, a phrase that reflected more than his status as the first hired.

“In an institution, there are scientists who do their work, and the administration can either stand in their way or they can enable everything,’’ Whitehead said. “John enabled everything. He was can-do and he made everything work. Everybody felt better when he was in the room.’’

Mr. Pratt “really did believe that you give back to your community, and that the purpose of life was not to work for money, but to give back value,’’ his wife said.

He also served on various boards, including twice chairing the board of Planned Parenthood of Massachusetts.

Mr. Pratt and Suzanne Hickman met at a college mixer when he was at Yale and she was attending Smith College. They married in 1965 and had two children.

“I think our children would say he was someone who opened up whole worlds to them,’’ she said. “He taught them how to sail, how to kayak, how to climb mountains. And he was just beginning to do that with the grandchildren, too.’’

Mr. Pratt’s son, James, of Needham, said that in part because he and his sister were born when their parents were young, “the four of us are very close and always spend time together. Not only were my mom and dad great parents, they’ve been great friends.’’

Each of four grandchildren, he said, offered Mr. Pratt a chance for a new unique relationship.

“I’m surrounded by photos of him with his grandchildren, and in every one he’s just beaming,’’ James said. “When my daughter was born, my mother called him on the phone to say, ‘You’ve got a granddaughter.’ He said, ‘I’m in love already,’ and that was really true.’’

In addition to his wife, son, and four grandchildren, Mr. Pratt leaves a daughter, Carter of Westborough; a brother, Francis of Far Hills, N.J.; and a sister, Mary Ardant of London.

A memorial service will be held at 10 a.m. March 23 in Memorial Church at Harvard University.

Burial will be private.

Diagnosed six years ago, Mr. Pratt had a reprieve through a few years of remission before the cancer returned.

Near the end of his life, a Tibetan friend visited and said, “I just came to tell you don’t be scared,’’ Mr. Pratt’s wife recalled. “And John said, ‘I am not at all scared. I have so enjoyed my life. I’ve done just about all that I wanted to do. I’ve had a wonderful family, I’ve had worked with wonderful people,’ and I think that speaks volumes about him.’’

Bryan Marquard can be reached at