Sipping tea in the smartly decorated neo-Georgian rooms at Harvard University’s Lowell House, Maurice M. Pechet spent decades advising students about careers in medicine and research. At 94, he was still sharing wisdom and leaving journal articles in their mailboxes.
Raised with 10 siblings in the Canadian prairie province of Saskatchewan in the Great Depression, he first lived in Lowell House as a Harvard undergraduate in 1943. He made his way to Cambridge on a cattle car, paying his way by loading and unloading steers all the way to Toronto.
“I think it was his combination of having gracefully achieved so much, and earnestly believing in his students, that made him so effective as a mentor,’’ said Benjamin I. Rapoport, who sought Dr. Pechet’s advice as an undergraduate and is finishing his medical degree at Harvard as well as a doctorate in electrical engineering at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
“When he believed in you,’’ Rapoport said, “you believed, too.’’
Dr. Pechet, a pioneering scientist and physician whose work in the 1950s helped lead to development of the now widely-used steroid Prednisone, died in his sleep from complications of pneumonia March 5 in his Cambridge home. He was 94.
He founded the Research Institute of Medicine and Chemistry in Cambridge in 1958 and was still working in his lab into his 90s, his family said.
During his early research, he also developed synthetic chemical processes that helped lay the foundation for the chemotherapy drug 5-Fluorouracil.
“He achieved what many in medicine and science dream of achieving, but few ever do in a single lifetime,’’ Rapoport said. “He solved several outstanding problems in medicinal chemistry; converted those solutions into commercially viable synthetic pathways for major drugs for inflammatory diseases, metabolic bone diseases, and cancer; and pioneered the use of those drugs as he treated his own patients and helped define treatment paradigms that spread across the globe.’’
Dr. Pechet also treated patients at Massachusetts General Hospital for more than 50 years.
“Maurice Pechet was a physician, a chemist, a noted researcher who was once nominated for the Nobel Prize, and a teacher all in one,’’ said Thomas Ragle, a friend and former longtime president of Marlboro College in Vermont, where Dr. Pechet was on the board of trustees for 37 years.
“He understood students - undergraduate and graduate - understood what mattered to them and how they thought, better than anyone I ever knew, even while he was engaged in high level, esoteric research,’’ Ragle said. “He was not simply a teacher, he was an adviser, often for life.’’
At Lowell House, Dr. Pechet was a mentor for generations of students. He helped secure travel fellowships for those he thought needed to mature and see more of the world.
In 1952, The Harvard Crimson described him as a secret resource for students in science.
“Most pre-meds in non-science fields, however, have never heard of him, although each fall word of him circulates among pre-meds like the news of a cut-rate butcher among housewives,’’ the Crimson reported.
Dr. Pechet was a link to a bygone era when Lowell House welcomed only men, who donned tuxedos for formal dinners known as “high table,’’ followed by glasses of port and cigars, said Diana L. Eck, who is one of two housemasters today.
“He regaled us with stories of Lowell House,’’ she said. “It was a treasure to have him as an active part of the house.’’
Every spring during graduation ceremonies at Harvard, Dr. Pechet led the contingent from Lowell House marching into Harvard Yard.
Along with his work in science and medicine, Dr. Pechet was a devoted arts patron, supporting New England Conservatory, Longy School of Music in Cambridge, and music at Marlboro.
Dr. Pechet did his undergraduate work at the University of Alberta in Edmonton. He graduated from Harvard with a doctorate in chemistry in 1944 and from Harvard Medical School in 1948, before holding numerous faculty posts at Harvard over the years.
After he married in 1960, he brought his bride, Kitty, to live with him at Lowell House. She became the first woman to live there.
They first met in New York City, though she said Dr. Pechet liked to tell a tale that he was lecturing in Peru and found her inside an Inca temple of virgins.
They actually met while Kitty, who studied at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, was on a blind date arranged by her parents with someone else.
She and her date ran into Dr. Pechet at the Plaza Hotel and had tea. Dr. Pechet had just returned from a lecture tour in Africa, she said, and told stories of witnessing extreme poverty, famine, and public health disasters.
“His dedication to humanity was very real,’’ she said. “He was wonderful. How could you not fall in love?’’
She recalled that Dr. Pechet cautioned her against marrying him by saying, “My life is dedicated to humanity.’’
Nineteen years his junior, she married him and witnessed how his devotion to his patients often left him depleted.
“It was clear what I had to do was make him an oasis,’’ she said. “I realized I didn’t have the ability to do that kind of work he was doing and, if what he needed was a support system to keep him going, I was willing to create it.’’
She said that during the birth of each of their children, Dr. Pechet sat in the waiting room and played with letters on a legal pad, composing unique names.
In addition to his wife, he leaves his sons Tiron of Cambridge; Taine of Radnor, Pa.; Tavan of Santa Monica, Calif.; and Tamin of San Francisco; a sister, Gwen Hiller of Beverly Hills, Calif.; and four grandsons. Burial was in Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge.
Family members said Dr. Pechet used Prednisone to extend the life of the family dog and once pulled items from his doctor’s bag to miraculously save a lemon tree at home. He slathered the tree with ointment, wrapped it in gauze, and gave it a shot with a hypodermic.
“Within five years the tree was full of these humongous, in-your-face lemons,’’ Kitty said. “I would look at it every year and say, ‘Well, we’re going to have pies.’ Lemon meringue pie was his favorite and it was thanking him for its life.’’