Heather Ann Peters, 74, an anthropologist, global human-rights activist and former Penn professor, died Saturday, April 24, at Penn Presbyterian Medical Center from injuries she sustained in a bicycling accident.
Ms. Peters, an experienced cyclist, was changing lanes near the Philadelphia Museum of Art when she was struck by a vehicle, throwing her from her bicycle. She died a few hours later.
At the time of her death, Ms. Peters and her husband, anthropologist David Feingold, were visiting Philadelphia — something they did twice a year. They were soon due to return to Asia, where they were based in Bangkok but worked on projects in China, Cambodia, Myanmar, and Laos.
Ms. Peters’ career included consulting as well as research and development projects with UNESCO and other agencies. She focused on preserving the rights and culture of minorities, preventing human trafficking, HIV/AIDs, and other sensitive issues.
Her passion and commitment to her work were noted by many.
“The outpouring for her has been extraordinary,” said Feingold, a documentary filmmaker and partner on some of his wife’s projects. “There are Tibetan monks burning butter lamps for her. There are Buddhist ceremonies in Thailand for her. There’s a couple that commissioned a Mass at the Bayonne Cathedral in France. She had tremendous influence on people.”
Raised in Roslyn, Long Island, by parents Howard O. Sr. and Estelle Peters, Ms. Peters earned a bachelor’s degree in Asian studies from Barnard College, where she first studied Chinese; a master’s degree in Chinese art and archaeology from Princeton University; and a doctorate in anthropology with a specialization in China at Yale. She was fluent in Mandarin.
From 1981 to 1991, Ms. Peters taught at the University of Pennsylvania’s anthropology department. She also served as a visiting professor at the American University of Paris and was affiliated with Southwest Minzu University and Southwest Jiaotong University, both in Chengdu, China.
But most impactful was her human-rights work in Asia, where she helped protect the right of ethnic minorities and Indigenous people to have control over what happens to them as well as preserve their culture from potentially destructive development.
“My description of Heather was fierce grace,” said Feingold. “She was driven by huge curiosity about the world and different cultures. Her passions were human rights and the rights of Indigenous people.”
Ms. Peters also had a way with people — all kinds of people — that left a lasting impression.
“She walked with me into Khmer Rouge camps, and she could go drinking with deminers,” who removed land mines from the earth, Feingold said. “But she could also hold the hand of a woman in a refugee camp whose baby died.”
“Whether it was recalcitrant local officials or people in villages, she could convey a genuine interest in other people,” he said. “She could charm people in a way that put them at ease. And she could give people offhand pieces of advice that could change their lives.”
Ms. Peters was a mentor and a role model for many of the young people who worked with them on projects over the years, her husband said.
“Neither of us were religious in any sense, and I don’t believe Heather believed in an afterlife,” said Feingold. “But I do believe people live on both through their works and the memories of those people they influenced, and I think in that way Heather lives on.”
In addition to her husband, Ms. Peters is survived by a brother and other relatives.
Visitation will be Friday, May 14, from 10:30 to 11 a.m. at West Laurel Hill Funeral Home Inc., 225 Belmont Ave., Bala Cynwyd, Pa. 19004, immediately followed by a funeral.
Donations in Ms. Peters’ memory can be made to the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia, 1500 Walnut St., #1107, Philadelphia, Pa. 19102.