Not long after Peter Dews became an instructor at Harvard Medical School in 1953, the head of pharmacology suggested that he acquaint himself with famed psychologist B.F. Skinner, who was also teaching at the university.
“I’m ashamed to say that I was not aware of Skinner or his work; I’d never had any contact with psychology,” Dr. Dews said in a 1995 interview for the Center for the Study of the History of Neuropsychopharmacology.
“It was very apparent to me, from the moment I stepped into the lab, that the techniques were of great interest and the main reason was that they were so familiar,” he said, adding that “it was love at first sight.”
Dr. Dews, who in the 1950s helped lay the groundwork for the emerging field of behavioral pharmacology with his series of articles “Studies on Behavior,” died Nov. 2 in Brigham and Women’s Hospital. He was 90 and lived in Weston, where he moved two years ago after 50 years in Newton.
Jonathan Katz, chief of the psychobiology section of the National Institute on Drug Abuse Intramural Research Program, said Dr. Dews took Skinner’s techniques of studying behavior and applied them to pharmacology.
“He was an exceptionally good pharmacologist, who was also very open-minded about behavior,” said Katz, who was a postdoctoral fellow in Dr. Dews’s Harvard lab in the late 1970s.
Calling Dr. Dews “the consummate behavioral pharmacologist,” Katz added that he “excelled in his empirical studies, and those studies established the field.”
“He then advanced the field with his own studies, and he pointed scores of others in the right direction,” Katz said.
Dr. Dews arrived at Harvard as the pharmaceutical industry was introducing antipsychotic drugs such as Thorazine.
In those years, little was understood about how medications affected behavior.
Dr. Dews, who wrote numerous papers for medical journals, “excelled in the written word,” Katz said.
“In just a few words he would sum up a position and show how important it was. His influence on me was profound, and it was similarly profound on many others.”
Despite his renown, Dr. Dews was reluctant to take credit for his achievements. Colleagues and family said he was always quick to share accolades with his fellow researchers.
“He was very modest,” said his daughter, Pamela Dews Rentschler of Acton, who noted that he did not want to be referred to as ‘Doctor’ on her wedding invitation.
“That just wasn’t him,” she said. “He didn’t care about people’s titles; he cared about what people could do. He treated everyone equally, no matter who they were.”
Peter B. Dews was born is Ossett, in West Yorkshire, England, and grew up in the nearby town of Wakefield. At 11, he was awarded a scholarship to the Thornes House Grammar School, where he won awards in a wide variety of subjects, his daughter said.
Diagnosed two years later with scarlet fever, he convalesced in bed for an entire summer. His only visitor was a local doctor who encouraged him to pursue a career in medicine.
Awarded a scholarship to the medical school at the University of Leeds, Dr. Dews was 16 when he enrolled. While at Leeds, he rowed crew and participated in the Henley Royal Regatta.
Because his family did not own a car, he traveled by bicycle, regularly pedaling 70 miles from the university to his family’s home.
Years later, his daughter said, Dr. Dews commuted back and forth from his Newton home to Harvard Medical School on a three-speed Raleigh bike.
In 1944, he graduated from Leeds with degrees in medicine and surgery.
After a year of residency, he returned to work in the university’s pharmacology department.
He moved to Tuckahoe, N.Y., for a research fellowship at Burroughs Wellcome, a pharmaceutical company, where he met Grace Miller, a biologist. They married in 1949.
Dr. Dews spent the early 1950s as a fellow at the Mayo Clinic, and received a doctorate in physiology in 1951 from the University of Minnesota.
Two years later, he went to Harvard, where he spent the rest of his career, retiring in 1993 as professor emeritus.
At Harvard, Dr. Dews built a psychobiology laboratory within the pharmacology department.
The lab’s main subject of study was the behavioral effects of drugs, and he and his colleagues also explored the influences of cardiovascular function and a wide variety of other topics.
During his career, he studied the effects of marijuana, caffeine, and artificial sweeteners on behavior. Most of his research was conducted on animals, said his longtime colleague Jack Bergman, behavioral pharmacologist at McLean Hospital and Harvard Medical School, who recalled that Dr. Dews was a consultant for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration when animals were being sent into space.
Bergman said Dr. Dews was frequently consulted on public-health issues and “liked being involved in those discussions.”
He described Dr. Dews as “intellectually mischievous, with a good, British sense of humor.”
“He took you back to an earlier time when people were erudite and well read and well traveled,” Bergman said. “He was one of the most interesting and intelligent people I ever met.”
Dr. Dews served on boards and committees of many major institutions, including the National Research Council, the Consumer Product Safety Commission, and the National Institute of Mental Health.
In his spare time, his daughter said, he liked to spend time with family.
“He was home every evening,” she said. “We always had dinner together.”
Dr. Dews also made time to attend the Little League games and piano recitals of his children and grandchildren.
A lifelong outdoorsman, Dr. Dews took his family around the country for camping trips to national parks, his daughter said.
While attending medical conferences around the world, Dr. Dews and his wife often took side trips to go on expeditions in Scotland, South America, and Eastern Europe.
A service has been held for Dr. Dews, who, in addition to his wife and daughter, leaves three sons, Kenneth of Chelmsford, P. Alan of Rochester, N.H., and Michael of Haddonfield, N.J.; a sister, Jean Hilditch of Bridlington, England; nine grandchildren; and a great-grandchild.
“One thing I have to say about my father is that he had a fabulous life,” his son Kenneth said. “He did everything he wanted to do, and he enjoyed every minute of it.”
Kathleen McKenna can be reached at kmck66