Peter Meldrum, scientific pioneer and founder of Utah’s Myriad Genetics, dies at 71

(Photo courtesy of Myriad Genetics) Peter Meldrum, co-founder of Myriad Genetics, as seen in August 2007.

Peter Meldrum, co-founder of the Utah-based biotech firm Myriad Genetics and a pioneer of the first commercial test for the breast cancer gene, died Dec. 20 after an accident. He was 71.

A company spokesman said Wednesday that Meldrum died in Salt Lake City from a head injury sustained in a fall while playing touch football with his grandchildren.

The University of Utah-trained chemical engineer and businessman founded Myriad Genetics with Mark Skolnick in May 1991 and became its CEO the following year, leading the company to landmark genetic discoveries nearly a decade before the human genome was fully mapped.

Myriad would be among the first genetic companies, one whose top achievements included the discoveries in 1994 and 1995 of the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes, indicating elevated risks of breast and ovarian cancer.

Under Meldrum’s leadership, the company would grow from a small startup to a publicly traded molecular diagnostics firm with a market capitalization of more than $2.2 billion and offices around the world. Its patents on those breast cancer genes, which Myriad developed into a blood test, also led to court challenges and ultimately, a 9-0 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013, finding that natural human genes could not be patented.

The company has greatly expanded genetic testing since then, developing and trademarking diagnostics for a wide array of other hereditary cancers and other ailments.

In a statement issued Dec. 31 with the company’s announcement of Meldrum’s death, current Myriad Genetics president and CEO Mark Capone called Meldrum “a scientific visionary and pioneer in the fields of personalized medicine and molecular diagnostics.”

Meldrum said in 2009 that the company’s vision reflected the fact that Myriad, located in Research Park adjacent to the U. campus, had recognized a fundamental shift in the underlying model for medicine, away from treating diseases toward using biotechnology to prevent them.

John Henderson, a physician and board chairman at Myriad Genetics, said in a statement that Meldrum’s business acumen drove its dramatic growth, while his personal approach continues to inform the company’s mission.

“His consistent focus on the individual patient, commitment to research and strive for perfection were the cornerstones of his success and are values that we continue to cherish as a company,” Henderson said.

Company spokesman Ron Rogers said Meldrum was “an incredible guy,” noting that his work at Myriad had led to millions of genetic tests around the globe.

“When you think about the impact he had in saving people’s lives and the impact on human health in general, it was dramatic,” Rogers said. “Pete was really in the forefront of all of that.”

Colleagues and family members described the Salt Lake City native — born June 26, 1947, the eldest son of Benjamin “Nibs” Meldrum and Grace Durkee Meldrum — as a kind and generous man with a passion for traveling, photography and mountain climbing.

He earned a degree in chemical engineering from the U. in 1970 and a U. business degree in 1974, while also excelling as a cross country athlete. Those academic degrees were followed by honorary doctorates from Westminster College and the U., in 2004 and 2009, respectively.

Among many other awards and honors over his lifetime, Meldrum received the Governor’s Medal for Science and Technology in 1998 and was inducted into the Utah Technology Hall of Fame in 2009.

Meldrum was active on Utah’s arts and education scenes, serving on the boards for Pioneer Theatre, Ballet West, Westminster College and Utah Museum of Natural History, among others. Since his retirement in 2015, he also served as executive director for The Meldrum Foundation, overseeing the family’s charitable giving to the arts, educational and humanitarian causes.

Meldrum married then-fellow U. undergraduate Catherine Marie Roper in 1970, a union that lasted 48 years until his death. He is survived by his wife; brother Daniel; son Christopher; three grandsons, Ian, Colin, and Aidan; and several nephews and nieces.