UBC Reports
August 15, 1996

Peter Larkin: 1924 - 1996

A champion of common sense

by W.H. New
McLean Chair of Canadian Studies

Picture 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 choice.

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 inestimable.

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.