Dr. John ‘Wah’ Peterson ’70 still marching to his own beat

Jan. 19, 2018 — As a teenager playing keyboard for a wildly popular Midwest band called the PKQ, John “Wah” Peterson ’70, had more than a few rock and roll moments in the 1960s.

The Mason City, Iowa, group caught the attention of the William Morris Agency, which signed them to a contract. The PKQ recorded at Chicago’s legendary Chess Studios and eventually opened for The Doors, the Beach Boys, and Sonny & Cher, among others.

Today, as a board certified family physician who practices Ayurvedic medicine, Peterson still performs and records music. For decades, the Muncie, Indiana, doctor has comforted the dying, fought for women’s reproductive rights, and delivered thousands of babies.

Vicki Smith Peterson ’70 & John “Wah” Peterson ’70
    Vicki Smith Peterson ’70 &
     John "Wah" Peterson '70

“From my perspective, medicine and music are exactly the same,” says Peterson, who has been married to fellow Grinnell biology major Vicki Smith Peterson ’70 for more than four decades. “Composing, making music, and making sense out of structures and chord progressions are exactly the same circuitry I use when practicing medicine.”

At Grinnell, he picked up the nickname Captain Wa Wah, which was later shortened to Wah – it’s a long story involving late nights, mind-altering substances, and music – and it’s what Vicki still calls him. He later graduated from University of Iowa’s medical school and the two settled in Muncie, where they raised their three children.

Ayurvedic medicine “is the most ancient system of natural medicine, with its origin in the Himalayas 5,000 years ago,” explains Peterson, who uses Ayurvedic pulse diagnosis with every patient. “Pulse diagnosis involves putting three fingers on the radial pulse. When I learned Ayurvedic medicine in the mid-1980s I thought I’d just reached into a new universe of medicine – it was much deeper than anything I had experienced before.”

Today, he and Vicki lecture nationwide on Ayurvedic practices and are thoroughly devoted to the lifestyle, which encompasses how they eat, sleep, and live. Vicki is a longtime Transcendental Meditation teacher and both have been practicing it for decades.

“We’ve meditated twice a day for 45 years. We never miss a day,” he says.

Peterson’s father was an organic chemistry professor while his mother was a concert pianist and teacher. The family resided in Mason City, which Peterson describes as a ‘music-crazy’ town.

He picked up the piano at home and, like many “River City” kids, he began playing a band instrument – in his case, trombone – in second grade. By high school, nearly a third of the students played. After graduating from high school and touring with the PKQ for two years while attending the local junior college, he decided to enroll at Grinnell College.

Peterson’s campus band from decades ago, Independent 398, still gets together to entertain at Reunion.

“When they play together it just bring you back,” says Class Agent Nora Sansone Hoover ’70. “Everybody knows Wah through his music, and he gives us an opportunity to connect to our past through music.”

Peterson’s adventures in music and medicine haven’t stopped. He and Vicki live just a few blocks from his private medical practice in Muncie, and he teaches at both Ball State and Indiana University Medical School – Muncie, often lecturing on alternative medicine. Medical students also rotate in his family medicine practice, giving them a chance to observe a compassionate, unique style of medicine they’re not likely to see elsewhere. And one day a week, Peterson works at the local Medicaid clinic.

He plays in several local bands and is about to release a CD. Over the years, he’s run several music clubs in town, including the late, great DOCS, which for 20 years brought a long list of musicians to Muncie.

“Wah really embodies that left brain/right brain dichotomy,” says Hoover. “He’s always had a different world view.”

— by Anne Stein ’84

For your information:

More about Peterson’s life and time at Grinnell College can be found in his book, The True-Life Adventures of Captain Wa Wah. Check out www.captainwawah.com for the details.