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Peter Nicholls (1935–2014)

Almost exactly twenty years ago Peter Nicholls became president of Science for Peace. Unlike most of his predecessors, he was not based at the University of Toronto, but was a professor of biology at Brock University in St. Catharines, near Niagara Falls. Nevertheless, so committed was he to nuclear disarmament that he was always among the most reliable participants in our organization.

Indeed, reliability and judiciousness were consistent aspects of Peter’s character. He did not chit chat about ephemera or mention his personal life often, but at every new encounter would offer an astute update about the parlous state of the world. However sombre his analysis, his style was unflappably British—almost Churchillian. This came easily for the son of a businessman-politician; he had learned early to address public affairs volubly and pleasantly.

Peter was born in Southampton and remained a lifelong fan of its football team, the Saints. And even while studying biology at St. John’s College, Cambridge, he became a nuclear disarmament activist, joining an early Aldermaston march. His interests turned toward biochemistry, and his first academic post was in the State University of New York in Buffalo, which during the Vietnam War was not a congenial setting for an anti-war activist, so he returned to Cambridge and then to a university in Denmark for a time.

Moving to Canada in 1975, Peter became a professor at Brock University, a specialist exploring the function of cytochrome oxidase, an enzyme in the mitochondrial or bacterial membrane that is responsible for oxygen uptake by the cell. He served as chairman of his department there.

During his tenure as president of Science for Peace, he was also vice-president of the Canadian Biophysical Society. He took early retirement and returned to England in 1998, becoming honorary professor at Essex University in Colchester. His wife Freda, also a biochemist, died in 2006.

His friendships with Science for Peace members flourished at a distance, for throughout the next sixteen years Peter continued participating in our work, occasionally timing his rare visits to Canada to join one of our meetings. He stayed with me on one such trip and, over cognac one late night, genially demolished some muddled scientific theory I had concocted (I forget what it was about, but do remember enjoying the conversation). I ran into him twice in Europe at International Peace Bureau meetings and both times we discussed the future of Trident submarines. He sent book reviews and reports to Peace Magazine, analyzing every significant disarmament event held in Britain, Brussels, or Geneva. As chair of the UK’s Abolition 2000 movement, he seemed to attend all of them and could foresee their long-term implications.

And then, in October 2014, Peter died. He was 79, but had seemed indestructible. We first heard about it when his brother Stephen wrote us about his will: he had left a substantial bequest for Science for Peace. Until now, because of a change in editors, we have published no Bulletin in which to announce Peter’s passing, so this announcement may come as a shock to several friends, who will surely recall him warmly as a generous, thoughtful, principled man. We are grateful to him for his sustained commitment to the well-being of our world.

When I reflected on Peter’s presidency of Science for Peace, I realized that my memory had dimmed during the twenty-year interval. I recall the years 1996-97 through a rosy, soft filter quite unlike the sharp contrasts we experienced at the time. To correct my fuzzed-up perceptions, I decided to consult Google and reconstruct the period when Peter led our organization.

What was going on then? Jean Chrétien was Canada’s prime minister; Bill Clinton was the US president; John Major was the British prime minister; and Boris Yeltsin was the president of Russia. Prince Charles and Diana had divorced. Mad Cow Disease was a source of panic in Britain. Dolly the first cloned sheep was born. Hong Kong was decorating its streets in preparation for being handed over to China.

The calmness of those years was therefore not entirely imaginary. The Cold War was over! The UN was authorizing the creation of the International Criminal Court!

On the other hand, there was nationalistic violence in the post-Soviet space and in Kosovo, and NATO was expanding eastward, justifying the Russians’ perception of the West as treacherous. Science for Peace, along with the rest of the post-Cold War peace movement, was dwindling. Peter viewed the global situation darkly. In a Bulletin essay he wrote presciently:

“Other things have deteriorated since the ending of the Cold War. Real ‘small’ wars, in which tens of thousands do die, have replaced the threat of world war in which tens of millions might have died. Yet local wars do not provoke a general concern, as did the perceived nuclear threat. Nuclear weapons are now (for example) only the most obvious and absurd component of a weapons business that for the UK and the US (I think unlike Canada) involves massive sales of ‘conventional’ arms to corrupt regions of several kinds, corroding domestic political dialogue for the sake of money….”

If on that point Peter excepted Canada (perhaps too optimistically) from his accusation, he did not give this country a pass a year later, when he complained:

“Canada did not demur from the December NATO announcement that nuclear weapons policies would be preserved unchanged. And in the UN we have voted against a ‘time-bound’ agreement for nuclear disarmament.”

Were he still with us, Peter would unquestionably repeat these charges. And yet I am sure that his complaints would not be uttered in a tone of despair, but rather in the amiable spirit of a reliable workman, getting on with the endless chore of repairing the world, and loving his job.

And so should we all. Thanks, Peter Nicholls.

Metta Spencer is the President of Science for Peace and Professor Emerita of Sociology, University of Toronto.

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