The Volunteer Whose Achievements Keep on Giving — Peter McPherson (Peru)


A Profile in Citizenship

by Jeremiah Norris (Colombia 1963-65)


M. Peter McPherson

Peter McPherson public service career began as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Peru, where during 1964-65, he spent 18 months in Lima running a food distribution program and setting up Credit Unions. In an interview with “The State News,” he called the experience a defining moment and said his experience in the Peace Corps helped him learn how to adapt. He found out that when a Volunteer, he was in a different culture, wherein he couldn’t be a gringo and be effective. It was just a matter of asking people what they want to get done, finding out what the formal and informal rules were and figuring out ways to do things differently, while doing practical work in that environment. And … that process was a challenge.

After completing law school in the late 1960s, Peter worked for the Internal Revenue Service where his specialty was international taxation. He joined the Administration of then-president Gerald Ford in 1975 as Special Assistant to the President and Deputy Director, Presidential Personnel Office.

From 1981 to 1988, Peter served as the Administrator for the U. S. Agency for International Development (USAID). In this position, he led the response to the Great Famine in Africa during which the U. S. delivered 2 million tons of food to Africa in a 12 month period. With UNICEF, he and USAID led the worldwide effort to address the high rates of mortality associated with childhood diarrhea. One of the simplest and most potent interventions to reduce mortality was through the introduction of Oral Rehydration Therapy (ORT), developed by the Merck pharmaceutical company in the early 1980s during a cholera epidemic in Bangladesh.  Peter got the entire Agency behind its introduction in developing countries. He even made it a weekly policy to call various USAID Program, Desk Officers and Country Directors, asking them: what can you report to me on the progress you are having with reductions in diarrheal diseases though the use of ORT.  Before ORT, this disease killed 5 million children every year. Today, the number is well below 500,000. ORT is a simple mixture of salt, sugar and water, an oral solution that can be mixed in kitchens of poor rural families. It was more effective than intravenous therapy that formally had to be administered in hospital settings. In the developed world, it is referred to as ‘Pedialyte’.  His role in promoting ORT won him an Award from UNICEF for “Outstanding Contributions to Child Survival.”

While serving as USAID Administrator, Peter was also Chair of the Board of the Overseas Investment Corporation. From 1988 to 1989, he was Deputy Secretary of the U. S. Treasury Department where he was one of three negotiators in the final weeks of the U. S.—Canada Free Trade Agreement.

In 1993, Peter was selected to become President of Michigan State University from a list of 171 publicly  identified candidates. During his tenure as President, the school’s international undergraduate study program became the nation’s largest. He is also credited with being the only president of a major university to keep tuition at the rate of inflation through a Tuition Guarantee Plan.

In 2007, Peter was named Chairman of Dow Jones & Company during its annual shareholding meeting. As Chairman, he was deeply involved in the negotiations with Rupert Murdoch over Murdoch’s plan to purchase the Wall Street Journal. He led the final annual meeting of Dow Jones where stockholders voted to approve the $5 billion sale of the 125-year old company, including the Wall Street Journal, to Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp.

Afterwards, Peter went on to serve as President of the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, (APLU), the nation’s oldest higher education association. In 2007, he led APLU’s role in co-founding the Voluntary System of Accountability—which was designed to enable institutions to demonstrate their voluntary commitment to publishing access, cost, and student outcome measures for the benefit of the public, prospective students and lawmakers. His leadership at APLU also included a permanent partnership with the Coalition of Urban Serving Universities in an effort to incubate and promulgate the reforms necessary to help public urban research institutions to best serve their rapidly changing student populations.

In other activities, he was a Founding Co-chair of the Partnership to Cut Hunger and Poverty in Africa, and also serving as the Chair of the HarvestPlus Project Advisory Board for 15 years.  In 2002, he was appointed by then-president Gorge W. Bush as Chairman of the Board for International Food and Agricultural Development (BIFAD). It advises USAID on the topics of food and agricultural safety in the developing world.

Perhaps among all of Peter’s significant achievements the one that continues to benefit society on a global scale is his promotion of Oral Rehydration Therapy for the treatment of childhood diarrheal diseases — and that alone warrants him a Profile in Citizenship.






Leave a comment
  • A remarkable lifetime of contribution that began as a Volunteer in Peru. Peter McPherson made a lasting imprint on everything he touched. Thank you for another inspiring narrative, Jeremiah.

  • ORT is life-saving and I, too, commend Peter McPherson for his promotion of its successful use. It is also important to know that this therapy did not originate with Merck, a commercial, profit-driven pharmaceutical company.

    For instance, in the 1970s in Ecuador, this treatment was taught to and used by peasant and indigenous women and girls trained to be midwives, paramedics, and health and nutrition educators in remote communities. The trainees graduated as Promotoras de Salud after intensive classroom instruction and clinical training.

    Individually selected by their fellow rural residents, the students met qualifying criteria for specialized training by a team of Ecuadorians including physicians and nurses and professionally trained women Peace Corps Volunteers. Teams of host-country nationals and these women Volunteers collaborated, working side by side to recruit participating communities, which selected the students, to write and refine curriculum, and to conduct training, supervision, and inservice training in many isolated communities.

    As midwives, paramedics, and health and nutrition educators, the Promotoras devoted themselves to making dramatic improvements in the health of their families, neighbors, tribe members, and strangers. Their new knowledge and skills often contradicted centuries-old practises and beliefs such as bad air and the evil eye as causes of illness and death. The simple oral rehydration recipe they were taught to make was one of the therapies that the Promotoras successfully used to save lives.

    Beverly Hammons
    RPCV Ecuador 1970-73

    • Dear Beverly,

      I greatly appreciated your comment. I worked for a period of 4 years on the introduction of ORT to the developing world via a contract with USAID. All of the data we were given on the origins of ORT were drawn from Dr. Richard Cash’s work at the Harvard Medical School. He stated that what became known as ORT was first used during a cholera epidemic in Bangladesh and the product was based on a development by the Merck Pharmaceutical Company.

      I don’t dispute your excellent comment: it is simply that I never heard of it before. So, thank you for that critical information.

      Jerry Norris

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