USAMRICD microscopist retires

Dr. John Petrali examines electron photomicrographs

Prior to the advent of digital imaging, Dr. John Petrali of the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Chemical Defense examines electron photomicrographs of cyrofixed skin cell specimens. (Photo courtesy of USAMRICD)

After 54 years of service, Dr. John P. Petrali, a research anatomist and principal investigator, recently retired from the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Chemical Defense, Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md.

"It's an honor for me today to acknowledge your remarkable career," said Col. Bruce Schoneboom, USAMRICD commander, at Petrali's retirement luncheon Aug. 2. "Thank you for your service to the nation and to ICD, and for the legacy that you've built here and leave to us to continue to work on."

Petrali began serving his country in the military and was stationed at Edgewood Arsenal in 1959 as a medical corpsman private. Prior to being drafted, he had earned a bachelor's degree in biology from Davis and Elkins College, Elkins, W. Va., and a master's in preclinical sciences from Boston University, School of Medicine, Boston, Mass. At Edgewood, he was assigned to a predecessor lab of the USAMRICD, and in 1962 he began his federal civilian career as a biologist in the Pathology Branch. There under the mentorship of Dr. Ludwig Sternberger, Petrali trained in electron microscopy, immunology and ultrastructural techniques. In 1969, he received his doctorate in anatomy and pathology from the Medical Graduate Program of the University of Maryland School of Medicine.

Petrali is credited with establishing an electron microscopy facility at the USAMRICD, recognizing the numerous ways that this technology could contribute to the research program. Additionally, Petrali has been instrumental in mentoring the next generation of USAMRICD microscopists, who have maintained the facility's state-of-the-art capability, to include the installation of a field emission scanning electron microscope, with X-ray microanalysis capability.

"Being part of the EM team has had a life-long impact," said Tracey Hamilton, who worked with Petrali since the early 1980s.

"John was all about education when I joined the team, and he encouraged me to earn my EM certification," continued Hamilton. "Everything I enjoy about EM today is a result of his mentorship, and I'll always remember how we saw things no one else will ever have the privilege of seeing, and we saw them together."

During his long career at the USAMRICD, Petrali did more than provide support for other investigators. He designed and conducted primary research to detect the mechanisms of chemical threat agents and to identify those that might predict or be used to diagnose injury. His work led to a number of breakthrough discoveries. He was one of the first to determine that the effects of nerve agents on the blood-brain barrier were dependent on convulsive activity, and the first to define the sequential ultrastructural immunopathogenesis of blister formations in skin and cornea resulting from exposure to the chemical warfare agent sulfur mustard. These investigations are now considered benchmark studies for the fielding of anticonvulsants as a first-line immediate treatment of nerve agent casualties, and for the development of non-invasive immunodiagnostic strategies to confirm mustard gas exposure.

"John's name is synonymous with ultrastructural pathology at MRICD," said coworker Dr. William Smith, who initially worked for Petrali when he first arrived at the institute in 1968.

Addressing Petrali at the luncheon, Capt. Carl Smith, chief of the Cellular and Molecular Biology Branch, and Petrali's current supervisor, said, "From the perspective of a new scientist, your accomplishments are completely awe inspiring. Your contributions are immeasurable."

Petrali is credited as author or co-author on more than 140 peer-reviewed scholarly articles, book chapters, and technical reports, as well as presentations at innumerable scientific and professional meetings. Several of his presentations have received best poster or best paper awards. He also holds two patents: "Free Floating Cryostat Sections for Immunoelectron Microscopy" and "Optical Device for Self Monitoring of Pupillary Response."

In addition to numerous performance awards, Petrali has received a Federal Executive Board Outstanding Career Service Award (1987) and the Senior Research Scientist of the Year Award, from the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, Joint Science and Technology Office, Chemical/Biological Defense Program (2006). Petrali is a fellow of the Microscopy Society of America and served as chairman of the National Certification Board for electron microscopy technologists (2006-2009). In 2010, he was awarded an honorary doctorate of science from his undergraduate alma mater, Davis and Elkins College.

Upon his retirement, Petrali received the Meritorious Civilian Service award, recognition as a distinguished member for the U.S. Army Medical Department Regiment, an Army Medical Department 30-year medallion and an Army medallion, as well as several letters from senior leadership, including President Obama, thanking him for his service and wishing him well in his retirement.

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Last Modified Date: 28-Aug-2012