How a Jesuit's biology classes taught me how to think

MORE THAN FACTS. Joseph J. Peters, S.J., with biology students in 1968.

We first met when I was applying to Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio. The dean of admissions, after praising my high-school record and my plans for medical school a bit too generously, sent us over to see the chairman of the biology department. In a small office in one corner of the third floor of Albers Hall, we met a gray-haired, quiet man wearing a lab coat. This was Joseph J. Peters, S.J. He had an understated gravitas, and it quickly was clear that he was not as easily impressed as the dean of admissions. I do not remember our conversation, but I do remember the serene quietness of the laboratory, the lack of ornamentation of the office and the aura of science. Do not discard this as hyperbole; to me it was tangible.

We talked; he gave some advice regarding admissions procedures and coursework but was otherwise noncommittal. I returned home absolutely committed to the Xavier program. It had nothing to do with the campus, pleasant as it was; I had seen none of the dorms or other facilities, of which there were many fewer than there are today. I knew nothing of the composition of the student population and did not care. I had met someone who was beyond teachers I had met thus far: clearly dedicated to some arcane concept called knowledge and intent to pass on this sense of dedication. Some people have life-changing moments at rock concerts or from mind-altering drugs; I had mine in a laboratory interview. The following autumn I matriculated.

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I had studied no biology and was part of the crowd in the introductory biology class. Father Peters taught that introductory course and began with a history of the subject, though it was not presented as such. He told a story of the astounding creatures that had come to be over time. Some remained with us; others had their day and were no more; still others had characteristics of their ancestors but had added new features that were useful.

In his lectures, we learned to apply and distinguish between deductive and inductive reasoning and how to focus on a scientific question. We learned that an experiment always gives the right answer: this is why it must be designed and conducted carefully. If not, the answer you get—the right answer—will be to some question you did not know you where asking.

After some weeks, we were asked to write a paper that proved or disproved the process of evolution. This was an exercise in dialectics as much as biology. I slowly came to realize that this was how Father Peters taught. He was not simply conveying information to young minds but developing critical thinking. His course was as much about why the scientists and philosophers of the Middle Ages, Renaissance and the Enlightenment were important to us now as it was about the origin of species. We were being given a course in the philosophy of science alongside introductory biology.

By junior year I had begun to study the deeper mysteries, at the same time memorizing biological information and being seduced by it. Comparative anatomy gradually came into focus as the beautiful mosaic of the commonality of structure and function throughout the animal kingdom. In embryology, ontology really did recapitulate phylogeny as the movement of cells from one part of the body to another during embryogenesis unfolded: a window into our history. Father Peters saw this as an almost theological exercise. He saw the magnificence and mystery of developing life and instilled it into his lectures. Since then, the scientific underpinnings of embryogenesis have become much clearer. None of that has taken the magic from embryogenesis as Father Peters presented it, but rather may have enhanced it.

As seniors, we moved beyond simple course work. We were asked to create a research project worthy of the name and then find a way to investigate it. We had guidance but no direct help. This was not unique to biology, being implemented in various ways across the university. This was university education at its best, I thought, challenging us to pursue, present and defend new knowledge. It changed my life.

I worked on the physiological mapping of a part of the salamander brain. The department provided the salamanders, but when the research moved beyond the standard available instruments, I had to fend for myself. In order to stimulate and record brain functions in salamanders, I wound up devising a procedure for producing glass microelectrodes from glass tubes heated with a Bunsen burner. Of course, the value of this lesson was not in glass manufacturing, but in developing the individual ingenuity necessary to solve problems and the willingness to go figure them out.

I still have a copy of the thesis I presented, proving my conclusions about certain brain functions in the salamander. It is a forgettable piece of work but has an honored place on my bookshelves, reminding me not about what I contributed to science but what I learned in the process. I went on to a career of 20 years in medical research and teaching that began by overheating glass rods in the biology lab.

Finally, there was Father Peters’s final exam in physiology. It is a complex topic, and we who sat for the exam had studied accordingly. When the day arrived, the 12 of us remaining of the 120 who began in biology as freshmen were seated with paper and pen awaiting the exam.

The door opened. Father Peters walked in and said, “Pick up your pens and write your names on the top of the page.” We wrote; he waited.

“Set your pens down.” We did that.

“Now tell me everything that happened from my first sentence until the second. Please leave your papers on the desk in the front of the room when you complete the exam.”

Then he left. We were stunned.

It was an excellent exam. He assumed that we had studied the material; he wanted to know how well we had assimilated it. Stated differently: “I trust you have mastered the notes, but can you make a symphony?” The exam itself was a learning experience. Before we could begin we had to review a great deal of physiology, decide how to organize our presentation of this synthesis and then, finally, begin to write. At the end of the exam we understood the dynamics of physiology far better than we did before. Beyond that, I suspect that how we answered did not matter much.

Father Peters was a scholar in a community of scholars and, for many of us, a model to be emulated. He coaxed from us our best efforts—by example. He was a quiet, self-effacing person and yet had a towering reputation. What combination of factors brought this about? His biography is instructive. Father Peters was born in 1907 and died 91 years later in 1998. He entered the Society of Jesus in 1927 and pronounced his final vows in 1940. His 31-year academic career at Xavier University stretched from 1946 to his retirement in 1977. He chaired the department of biology for 21 years.

During his Jesuit formation, he studied philosophy at St. Louis University and philosophy and biology at the University of Detroit. He earned a licentiate in theology (again at St. Louis) and a doctorate in zoology at Fordham. This blend of backgrounds was evident in his teaching and makes clear why he did not simply teach biology. He taught about life, the beauty of knowledge and the history and philosophy of science. He challenged us to consider who we were relative to the rest of the planet’s biology.

He did not offer simplistic answers but instead encouragement and guidance about how to seek a solution and enter more deeply into a topic. His approach to embryology, in particular, bordered on the mystical. If you think about one cell beginning the journey of division into almost 37 trillion, genes turning on and off, creating various tissues that then move into their final organization, getting all of this right just about every time, you begin to understand why he felt that way. Philosophy, theology and natural science all played their roles in forming his style and methods of education. As an educator, Father Peters passed all of this along to those who wanted to listen, encouraged independent judgment and offered guidance when asked.

In all my years of schooling, I have encountered several very good teachers, role models and counselors. But I have not met anyone who matched Father Peters in devotion to knowledge, breadth of perspective or inspired teaching.

When I got to medical school, I realized quickly that the biology and chemistry I had learned were already out of date. This is the nature of scientific knowledge. However, the abilities Father Peters had helped me develop to think about how to do science, and what scientific knowledge was and how it could be achieved, were still entirely valid. Education has two components: information transfer and perspective. The former is easily accomplished; the latter is acquired only with difficulty. He gave us both but emphasized the second.

It has been said that education is what you retain after everything you learned has been forgotten. That was one of the gifts that Father Peters gave to any of his students who would listen. He taught us to think critically and to direct that thought to action and achievement. Is there a better definition of the purpose of a university? He taught the love of learning, the benefits of the intellectual life and a holistic view of life and its issues. He showed us a spiritual approach to understanding, looking objectively and critically at oneself. Is there a better definition of the liberal arts?

He pushed his students forward without prodding and stayed in the background as we went ahead. He left a mark and an influence that remains many decades later.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
J Cosgrove
2 years ago
This is a very nice article about the process of learning and the value of a great teacher. Just a couple quibbles
write a paper that proved or disproved the process of evolution
There is no known process of evolution that can explain the various life form that exist or have existed on earth so writing a paper on something non-existent would have to make some assumptions about a 'straw man.'
Since then, the scientific underpinnings of embryogenesis have become much clearer.
From what I understand no one understands embryogenesis. There must be instructions somewhere in the egg (definitely not in the DNA) that determines gene expression in the various cells to form different cell types but no one knows where it is and what turns it on at various stages of gestation.

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