Acclaimed writer gave glimpses of the world
Peter T. White was a National Geographic writer and editor who slogged through tropical rain forests, hiked the Tyrolean Alps, examined the addictive and therapeutic uses of the opium poppy and wrote about cannibalistic tribes in the Brazilian jungle who ate their dead as a gesture of respect.
Mr. White died May 22 at his home in Washington. He was 92. The cause was respiratory failure and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, said a son, Norbert White.
Mr. White’s 38 years with National Geographic included lengthy visits to Southeast Asia, which he described as a place “of hope and terror,” known for bloodshed and the beauty of its temples.
From Laos in 1961, Mr. White wrote, “The first rattle of machine guns, at 7:10 in the evening, roused around me the varied voices and faces of fear.” Vientiane, the administrative capital, became known as the “city of bullet holes,” he wrote.
He was among the early corps of American journalists to report on the region’s protracted conflicts that morphed into a Vietnamese war that would engulf the military might of the United States and rend the fabric of the American soul.
For three decades, Mr. White was in and out of the region. In 1989, 14 years after Vietnam had been reunited under Communist rule, he returned for the National Geographic story, “Vietnam: Hard Road to Peace,” finding that the Hanoi-based government was making overtures to a capitalist world and groping for ways to invigorate a sluggish economy. Saigon, the former capital of South Vietnam, had officially become Ho Chi Minh City. But to the man in the street, it was still Saigon.
In 1986, Mr. White wrote about the painstaking search for clues and information from the debris at the Laotian site of a U.S. Air Force plane crash in 1972, with the loss of a 14-man crew. For nine days, investigators combed the newly discovered wreckage, finding “some 5,000 bone fragments, many of them no larger than a rice kernel,” Mr. White wrote.
Not all of his stories were exotic. In April 1983, he wrote “The Fascinating World of Trash,” storing his notes in boxes piled from floor to ceiling in his office. He carefully labeled each box “trash.”
Peter Theodor Futterweit was born May 11, 1925, in Vienna. His father was a Jewish World War I veteran of the Austro-Hungarian army who had been decorated for bravery. In civilian life, he ran a jewelry shop. The family lived in an upscale neighborhood of Vienna and took regular vacations in Italy and the Austrian Alps.
In June 1933, when Peter was 8, his father was killed by a bomb tossed into his shop during an anti-Semitic outburst of violence that followed Adolf Hitler’s ascent to power in neighboring Germany.
In September 1937, Peter and all other Jewish students were expelled from his public school. Six months later, the German army marched into Vienna, and Austria was absorbed into Germany.
Within days, his family’s jewelry shop — run by his mother after his father’s murder — was plundered by Nazi soldiers. What remained was confiscated by the puppet Austrian government.
Peter Futterweit, 13 at the time, left Austria via what came to be known as the “kindertransport,” an organized pre-World War II evacuation of children from areas under threat by Hitler’s regime. He went first to England and then, on his 15th birthday, arrived in New York, where he met his mother who also had fled their homeland.
He became a copyboy at what then was International News Service and went to high school at night. When he turned 18, he was drafted into the U.S. Army and served in military intelligence in England, France and Germany during World War II.
He graduated from Columbia University in 1948, then became New York correspondent for newspapers in Australia and New Zealand and contributed freelance articles to the New York Times Sunday magazine. In 1956, he joined the staff of National Geographic in Washington.
For a 1985 story on the opium poppy, Mr. White and photographer Steve Raymer visited 30 countries over 18 months. They interviewed and photographed drug addicts and dealers, doctors, scientists, police officers and government officials for a story that examined the medicinal value and destructive power of the poppy plant.
Mr. White retired from National Geographic in 1994.
His wife of 52 years, the former Carol Henderson, died in 2014.
Survivors include their son, Norbert White of New York, and two grandchildren.
While serving in the Army during World War II, Mr. White became a U.S. citizen. At that time he changed his surname to White.
Colleagues said he retained his Old World courtliness and was almost frantically meticulous in his reporting and research — and never seemed to throw anything away.
Mr. White was questioned once by an editorial researcher about the accuracy of a statement in one of his stories that a remote stream deep in a jungle had become heavily polluted. Back to his office he went, rummaging about until he produced the proof — a bottle of dark, thick liquid from the offending stream, which he’d brought back from the jungle.
Peter T. White, right, and his National Geographic colleague Bill Garrett, worked many years together in Southeast Asia in the 1960s.