A champion of common sense

by W.H. New
McLean Chair of Canadian Studies

Peter Larkin solved problems. He did so in part by refusing to believe they were
problems in the first place. Instead, he saw difficulties and disagreements simply
as challenges to the imagination, impasses as sites to climb through.

I remember how, shortly after I first began to work with him in 1975, I ran
headlong one afternoon into a stubborn procedural knot. “It’s sunny out,” he
said, when I tried to explain what was going wrong; “let’s go for a walk.” It
was one of those crisp autumn days when the UBC campus seems electric and
alive, and 20 minutes later the knot no longer seemed stubborn. We didn’t
exactly talk things through, nor did he tell me what to do. It was more Peter’s
way to let you work out for yourself the separate consequences of differing
actions. He just listened, attentively. But his own commitment was never in
doubt: to the highest standards of scholarship, to clarity and precision, to
creative and judicious solutions, to the continuing exercise of humane

These commitments are, of course, some of the reasons why he was so widely
admired. He loved to teach. (He won UBC’s Master Teacher Award in 1971, and a
dozen other medals and prizes, including two honorary degress, the Order of
Canada, and the Order of British Columbia.) Role model as well as teacher, he
was, however, always too modest ever to admit to that fact. “I’m just an
ordinary fellow doing his job,” he’d say. Everyone else knew that he was much,
much more.

One measure of the breadth of his accomplishment is that his life and career
cannot be easily summarized. Born in New Zealand, he came to Canada as a child,
and was educated at the University of Saskatchewan and at Oxford (where he was
a Rhodes Scholar, earning his DPhil at the age of 24). He moved to B.C. as
Chief Fisheries biologist for the B.C. Game Commission in 1948, and in 1955 he
joined the faculty at UBC. He worked first in the Fisheries Institute, and then
in the Dept. of Zoology; and subsequently he became head of department, then
dean of Graduate Studies, and later still, vice-president in charge of
research. Author of some 160 scientific papers, he also served over the course
of his career on some 50 local, national, and international commissions,
ranging from the Science Council of Canada and the National Research Council to
TRIUMF and the Vancouver Hospital Board, and from federal studies of the impact
of pesticides, and United Nations studies of marine mammals, to the Board of
B.C. Packers Ltd., the B.C. Advisory Committee on Ecological Reserves, and the
committee that worked on preserving and developing Strathcona Park.

After his retirement from UBC, he became actively involved in the Northern
River Basins Study, and he maintained his interest in marine research. Always
he engaged creatively with the world around him. As a scientist, he wanted to
know more about the world; as a thinking scientist who was also a sensible
human being, he wanted also to make sure that the world remained–or sometimes
became again–a liveable place.

By one of those ironies that go by the name of coincidence, Peter’s last note
to me arrived in the mail on July 10, the morning he died. The note (as usual,
brief) began with the single word “Awesome!” He was describing something that
had appealed to him, and he went on to talk about it in a little more detail.
But in retrospect I read that one word as characteristic of the way he met life
in general. Enthusiastically. Energetically. Irrepressibly. For him the world
was an endless source of wonder and delight. He strove to understand it
better, and if possible explain a little more about it. But he took pleasure
also in its mysteries. For those things that persistently remained
unclear–those that continued beyond the reach of explanation–obliquely and
indirectly promised a kind of continuity to scholarly enquiry. Mysteries
inevitably led to more thought, more wonder, and–occasionally (the
scholar-teacher’s dream)–more understanding.

Peter was concerned about the shaping of public policy, and he participated
willingly in government commissions, trying to match scientific knowledge with
community wishes and needs. He took real delight in the intricacies of
scientific enquiry. Yet he balanced these pursuits by delighting in people and
language as well. An intensely private family man, he was always at ease on the
public stage. He wrote skits. He wrote comic verses. He espoused scholarly
clarity, and at the same time appreciated a good (or a very awful) pun. He
loved celebrating others’ accomplishments, and frequently did so, with wit and
a sense of occasion. He could be passionately serious. He was a witty
raconteur. There was no inconsistency here. He simply had the ability to lead
without requiring that he be praised for leading; and he had both the expertise
to provide judicious and informed advice, and the wisdom not to mistake advice
and opinion for infallibility. His intelligence shaped his understanding of the
world; his faith in human worthiness sustained it; his gift of laughter helped
him share this understanding with others.

And share he did. Over the 20 years that I knew him, I saw him teach by example
rather than by rule. He understood that people work best when they work with
you rather than for you. He knew that administration is the art of enabling
possibilities rather than the act of designing restrictions. And he encouraged
and supported others–supported them in their research and aspirations,
encouraged them to recognize and respect the talents they themselves possessed,
to express their views frankly and fairly, and to appreciate that all
perspectives and talents need not be the same to be of value.

He demanded as much of himself as he did of others: honesty, accuracy,
integrity, consideration. And he gave of himself in return: to science, to
academe, to the community, friends and home. A modest man, yes. But

His family–his wife Lois, their five daughters, and their families–have lost
a constant and loving companion; the university has lost a champion of common
sense; the country has lost an effective advocate for science and ecology; the
world has lost an incomparable mentor and friend. We remember him with honour,
and appreciation.