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Peter Nicholas, cofounder of Boston Scientific, dies at 80

Founder of Boston Scientific Peter Nicholas in his office. Photo courtesy of Boston Scientific.Jim Flynn

Boston Scientific Corp., the company Peter M. Nicholas cofounded in 1979 with John E. Abele, vaulted the partners into the ranks of the most recognizable entrepreneurs in the medical device field — but fame wasn’t one of their goals.

“We’ve never issued a press release,” Mr. Nicholas said in 1992, when the company he proudly called “a stealth business” went public. “If we’d had our druthers,” he added, “we’d have stayed private.”

Mr. Nicholas, who had been president and chief executive of the global company whose success allowed him to become a generous philanthropist, died of cancer Saturday in his Boca Grande, Fla., home. He was 80 and had formerly lived for many years in Concord.

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Mike Mahoney, chief executive and chairman of Boston Scientific, said in a statement that “as a pioneer who helped shape the field of minimally invasive surgery, Pete Nicholas is remembered worldwide for his contribution to vastly improved patient outcomes and equally impressive increases in health care efficiency. Within the Boston Scientific family, Pete was also a lifelong mentor, motivator, and friend to hundreds of employees.”

Abele called Mr. Nicholas “one of the more creative people I’ve ever met, and I’ve met some pretty creative financial people. Pete was an absolute master.”

The two met at a Christmas party and later launched Boston Scientific, which grew into an international business with historic highs of 41,000 employees and a market capitalization of $67 billion, according to the Nicholas family.

“His mind was always moving,” said Nick Nicholas of New York City, Mr. Nicholas’s brother. “He was restless and persistent, and always looking for solutions.”

From boyhood to the boardroom, “Pete wanted to know how everything worked,” said his brother, a former co-chief executive of Time Warner Inc. “He had a very curious mind: ‘Why does that produce this?’ And he had this very positive attitude, which was, ‘Hey if we can figure out a, b, and c, we can do d, e, and f.’ "

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Philanthropic donations that Mr. Nicholas and his wife, Ginny, made included $2.5 million in 2003 to Falmouth Hospital, then the second-largest gift in its history, to fund a cardiac catheterization lab.

The couple made even larger charitable contributions to Duke University, where they had met as students and from which both graduated.

Mr. Nicholas felt particularly indebted to Duke, which admitted him as an undergraduate at the last minute when his eyesight didn’t pass the entrance physical at the US Naval Academy.

In 2004, the couple donated $72 million to Duke, heralded as the largest gift in the university’s history, as part of a fund-raising campaign they had cochaired for years.

Of that sum, $70 million was earmarked for the Nicholas School of the Environment and Earth Sciences. The Nicholas Institute of Environmental Policy Solutions is also at Duke.

Previous gifts by the couple to Duke included $25 million in 2002 to encourage endowed support for faculty positions and academic resources, according to the university.

“Obviously Duke was a centerpiece in his life,” Nick said.

A son of Greek immigrants, Peter M. Nicholas was born in Portsmouth, N.H., on May 16, 1941, the second of four siblings.

His father, Nicholas Nicholas, attended the US Naval Academy and was a career officer, serving on submarines during World War II.

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His mother, Vrysula Coucouvitis Nicholas, was a guiding presence at home for her family and many others.

“When you’re the wife of a commanding officer of a submarine and they’re away for six months, you’re sort of in charge of the mental health of the wives of the crew,” Mr. Nicholas’s brother said. “She saw that as her duty.”

As the Nicholas children were growing up, the family “probably moved every 18 months to two years,” Nick said, which meant the children got to know many places, from Portsmouth, N.H., to Denmark and Puerto Rico.

Throughout his life Mr. Nicholas “loved to work with his hands,” his brother said, and as a youth he was already displaying an intellect that could swiftly learn and perform tasks.

While living on the military base in Portsmouth, their father bought a kit to make a wooden boat.

“I noticed that my dad and Pete knew what the hell we were doing, even though we had never done it before,” Nick said. “I could barely keep up with them.”

Mr. Nicholas graduated from St. Paul’s School in Concord, N.H., where he lettered in baseball, football, and squash, learning teamwork lessons he brought to his executive career.

“Pete was very self-effacing, never grabbing the roses, very much a team person,” Nick said.

Accepted to attend the Naval Academy, Mr. Nicholas suddenly found himself in need of another college when his eyesight didn’t pass muster, and Duke stepped in. “Duke got one of its most faithful alums out of it,” his brother said.

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While at Duke, Mr. Nicholas met Virginia Lilly of Indianapolis, who is known as Ginny and is a descendant of the founder of the Lilly pharmaceutical company. They married in 1964, soon after both graduated.

Mr. Nicholas then served as a Navy communications officer on the USS Lookout, and in Virginia as a member of the special operations warfare group.

Upon leaving the military, he received a master’s in business administration in 1968 from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.

He then worked for Eli Lilly & Co. in sales, marketing, and management, and was a general manager at what was then the life science company Millipore Corp.

Then came that fateful Concord Christmas party where he met Abele. “We ended up talking almost the entire night,” Abele recalled.

Both were in their early 50s, and Abele was then president of Medi-tech Inc.

Merging their talents, they built Boston Scientific as cochairmen. “I don’t think we ever had a total breakdown argument ever,” Abele said in an interview earlier this month.

Though the Globe estimated each partner’s stake in the company at $500 million when the company went public, “I didn’t start this company to get rich,” Mr. Nicholas said in 1992. “We never put financial goals uppermost.”

“We were both fascinated by the challenge of bringing the best out in people,” Abele said. “How do you manage the talented individual? Pete was constantly sharing great experiences about that.”

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Part of Mr. Nicholas’s success was that “he was fabulous with asking questions that most people don’t ask,” Abele said.

And Mr. Nicholas stuck around to hear the responses.

“A lot of his great ideas came from listening,” his brother said.

A memorial gathering will be announced for Mr. Nicholas, who in addition to his wife and brother leaves two sons, J.K. of Cambridge and Peter Jr. of Boston; a daughter, Katherine of Coconut Grove, Fla.; and seven grandchildren.

Mr. Nicholas, who was chairman emeritus of Duke’s Board of Trustees and a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, was managing director of Ithaka Partners, a private equity firm he and his family created.

Last year, Duke awarded him its University Medal for his service to the school. Two years ago, he received the Joseph Wharton Lifetime Achievement Award.

A longtime boater and a collector of Bellamy eagles, the carved wooden eagles created by artist John Haley Bellamy, Mr. Nicholas was known for his attentiveness to family, to friends, and to colleagues.

“Pete was one of those people who had time for you,” his brother said. “If he had to run to a meeting in five minutes and you wanted to talk for another 15, he wouldn’t let you know. If there was something cooking, he would stay and apologize to the next person.”


Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.