Root Menu

Peter de Boer

A Self-Portrait

It feels as if the diagnosis Ewing sarcoma, a form of childhood cancer, at the age of 15 was the defining moment in my life. It is now almost 27 years later. Still, I cannot fully trust my luck both in my private and professional life: a dark undercurrent keeps surfacing albeit with lesser regularity. It must be admitted though that I may not be blessed with the happiest of personalities. Thus, as always, it is not completely possible to separate nature from nurture. Serious illness may seem to be the nadir of life experiences but the reconciliation of body and soul that follows is even more demanding. The wish to be the ultimate decision maker on my future led via the way of slow but almost certain self-destruction up to where I am now. The change in direction came when my best friend became pregnant while I was working in the US. She and I had always been close but I would never be able to give her the family she wanted due to 2 years of intense chemotherapy. Thus, although bonded by an invisible thread, we were living our own separate lives. The father of her child had walked out on her and it seemed good to raise the child together. Taking responsibility for a child meant accepting a future.

At the age of 42 I am trying to contribute to humanity through the development of better drugs to treat (psychiatric and immunological) disease. That I ended up doing this work is purely coincidental. I did not have a concept of a future until recently and still the boundaries of my future do not extend very far. I am trained as a biologist, did my PhD in neuro-pharmacology, worked in the US and the Netherlands and went from University to business. Only recently did I move to Oxford to continue my work in clinical research. As most of my colleagues I am driven by the desire to discover and develop a successful medicine. It is not only altruism that keeps me going: the ability to conduct investigations is a fascinating exercise. Unfortunately, the exercise is confrontational: to know is often more to know what you don’t know.

I come from a wind-swept farming village in the North West of the Netherlands close to the North Sea. My background is solid middle class and I enjoyed a relatively prosperous and happy early youth. Religion did not have a place in my upbringing although my father once made a serious attempt to convert to Catholicism. I still don’t know why he never saw this through but I also never asked. Not asking is probably a characteristic in our family. I believe that it sometimes drives my sister mad but I am convinced that my brother is very happy this way. It is not that we are secretive in any way; when prompted we will give honest answers. This trait also characterises my relations with others: I do not volunteer much personal information and don’t expect others to do so but they are definitely welcome. This is how I prefer it in general.

My parents taught me to take pride in being independent and in essence taught me only some basic principles. A lack of detailed guidance probably helped me to become a more creative person. The downside may have been that I never was encouraged to learn to play music properly. Music appears to be the only way to express feelings appropriately. I keep trying!

After graduate school I moved to the US and settled in Newark, New Jersey. I had broken up with my girlfriend and wanted new experiences. That I should go to the US was undisputed only the location took some consideration. Newark felt right. It was a city in decay, a cultural hotchpotch where life had the high pace characteristic of the New York Metropolitan area. In Newark I experienced the big divide that is characteristic of American society. Surprisingly, for me this was source of inspiration. The Dutch egalitarian society that I had left characterised itself by inflexible structures in which advancement is unrelated to either talent or hard work. In America, for the first time in my life, I had the feeling of space that went together with a sense of freedom. When I returned to the Netherlands I felt enclosed and unhappy. Moving to the UK has helped me to rid these feelings.

In my career I have not been driven by money or prestige although some money is certainly necessary to live a pleasant life. The “some” has become more over the years but fortunately did not keep pace with the earnings. Saving means freedom to me. It is my responsibility to contribute to the well-being of my wife and daughter. Having some savings enables change without too much sacrifice. However, I am not sure whether I ever will use this freedom. 

It is said that over the years people become milder. I think I just changed and that balances shifted. The lines between good and bad blurred and a single conviction became many; doctrine was replaced by context; the desire to be meaningful for many became for a few. The heroes of my youth who would change the world turned out to be tyrants and in my direct circle did the idealists often reveal themselves as opportunists. With these experiences I became more suspicious. In fact, I cannot stand those who are not true to their word. Similarly, nothing seems to anger me more than being confronted with unreasonable behaviour. I experienced that this comes at a cost when I lost my job after standing up to a university professor. I don’t think I have forgiven him. I rarely forgive injustices.  

The future is still uncharted. Not only where but also what. I fear to write that it will be a happy future but I am certain that it will be challenging and stimulating.