La Jolla Centenarians: Peter Fortescue says he led General Atomics’ team with adventurous spirit
Editor’s Note: As part of La Jolla Light’s 100th publishing anniversary this year, we are featuring interviews with fellow centenarians throughout 2013. If you know a La Jollan who is 100 years old, please e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or call (858) 875-5950.
■ Professional accolades: George Westinghouse Medal (1978); Franklin Institute Award (1979)
■ Favorite movies: “Citizen Kane” and the “far superior” Russian film adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s novel “War and Peace”
■ Favorite book: “The book I probably read more than anything was the Bible. I’m an agnostic, but I was amazed at how incredibly salacious the Bible is. It’s more salacious than the Kama Sutra.”
■ Favorite food: Lamb chops, any kind of roast
■ Hobbies: Making things; Fortescue once built a television and a Flying Flea airplane (homebuilt crafts popular in the 1930s).
■ Dislikes: “I never was keen on Disneyland. It was all so phony.”
■ Key to his longevity: “The plain fact that I’m here at all, to me, is purely genetics. I never lived any particularly healthy life and I’ve never dieted.”
■ Quotes: “In this world you have to be optimistic or you don’t get along. What we’ve got to concentrate on is not trying to adjust the world to suit us, but adjusting ourselves to suit the world.”
By Pat Sherman
At 100 years of age, La Jolla’s Peter Fortescue is still aglow with the energy and enthusiasm that fueled his career as head of research and development at General Atomics — and which led to his distinction in the field of nuclear energy as “father of the gas-cooled, fast-breeder reactor.”
“Money was important, of course, but it didn’t dominate; I just liked my job,” said Fortescue, whose work with General Atomics earned him a Franklin Institute Award and a George Westinghouse Medal.
Born May 15, 1913 in the village of South Brent in southwest England, Fortescue said he left school at age 16 to begin a five-year engineering apprenticeship with the now-defunct Great Western Railway Company.
Fortescue earned a bachelor’s degree in engineering from the University of London, and later received a Whitworth Scholarship that helped the high school “dropout” become an innovator in the fields of both jet engine and nuclear power development.
Fortescue worked on engine cooling research for Bristol Aerospace, where he advanced designs for what was to become the world’s first turbo-prop aircraft engine.
In 1947, as developed countries began to shift nuclear research from the atomic bomb to harnessing atomic energy for naval propulsion and electricity, Fortescue joined Harwell’s Atomic Energy Research Establishment, rising to become Deputy Chief Scientific Officer.
In 1957, on the recommendation of Nobel Prize-winning physicist Sir Douglas Crockcroft, Fortescue moved to La Jolla with his wife, Kay, daughter, Mia (Mary), and son, Michael, to take a position with San Diego’s newly established General Atomics.
His first project at General Atomics was to lead development of a gas-cooled, high-temperature nuclear reactor for Peach Bottom Atomic Power Station in Pennsylvania — the first of its kind in the United States.
“That, of course, really boosted my career,” Fortescue said. “I was lucky to be at the right place, at the right time, because the American reactor worked at extremely low power and I was called in simply because of my background (in heat transfer).”
Following the successful launch of Peach Bottom, Fortescue became both a U.S citizen and General Atomics’ Chief Research and Development Engineer.
After renting in La Jolla for a few years, Fortescue and his family purchased a home in Rancho Santa Fe, before he was transferred to General Atomics’ satellite office in Zurich, Switzerland for three years. He returned to San Diego in 1969 and eventually purchased the home he now resides in on Torrey Pines Road.
“It almost never rained here, which, coming from England, I appreciated,” Fortescue said.
His daughter, University City resident Mia Fortescue, said famous scientists were always dropping by their home, including Edward Teller, considered the “father” of the hydrogen bomb.
“General Atomics was very exciting for him and he made a lot of friends there,” said Mia, noting that several of her father’s colleagues attended his 100th birthday party May 5 at La Jolla Cove Bridge Club. “He always said he loved going to work.”
At home, Mia said her father had a lot of frenetic energy. “My mother was always telling him to sit still, because it was like watching a tennis match,” she said. “He was always pacing around, and had a very active mind. There wasn’t a scrap of paper in the house that didn’t have completely unintelligible calculations on them.”
Mia said her father would often bring home parts from projects he was working on for her and her brother to tinker around with.
“I was always asking him questions about science and life in the universe and what we were doing here, and he was always happy to give me information — but on a level that was way beyond what I could comprehend,” she said. “I was always very impressed with his mind.”
Still, Fortescue enjoyed breaks with his family, during which he exhibited the same sense of adventure as his uncle, Percy Fawcett, the eccentric adventurer whose 1925 disappearance in the Amazon has inspired several documentaries and a recent book.
“When we came to the states we went to all the national parks and would go camping in the sequoias,” said Mia, noting frequent hikes with her father along “Fat Man’s Misery,” a steep, pine-ensconced canyon path at Torrey Pines State Reserve that has been closed since the ’80s. “When we first arrived (in La Jolla) one of the first places we went to was the Marine Room,” she said. “There was a huge amount of that fluorescent algae (in the tide) that was absolutely amazing. After dinner, we all went swimming in the ocean, fully clothed, because the water was so warm.”
Mia said she attributes her father’s longevity, in part, to his disposition.
“He’s very even-tempered and always had a pretty positive view of life,” she said. “He liked driving everybody else out of their minds, but he was always happy.”
Though Mia said her father likes “heavy creams and sugars poured on everything,” he always ate in moderation, she said.
“He’s always had a very small appetite and he’s always been very thin — and extremely disciplined,” she said. “He has to have lunch at 12 o’clock, and he eats very much the same things all the time.”
The quintessential, old- school English gentleman, Fortescue is usually donning a sports jacket, and smokes a pipe three or four times per day. Fortescue’s wit is apparent in this passage from his autobiography, “From Diapers to Dotage,” in which he writes of his first visit to San Diego: “I remember Freddie offering what was to me a disgusting American concoction known as iced tea. This I poured out of the nearest window as soon as he was gone. The beautiful plants outside promptly withered and died.”
Though the future of nuclear power continues to be in question (with the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station subject to potential closure), Fortescue remains among its strongest defenders.
He said he believes the United States needs to reopen the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository, which was closed when the Obama Administration cut its funding in 2010.
“You can forget about the solar stuff,” he said. “The amount it could contribute would be completely negligible. … What they don’t mention is that although it’s theoretically cheap enough to make these solar panels, that’s only because they’re heavily subsidized.”
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