Patricia Peterson Werre loved the periodic tables. She had a blanket of the elements, a poster of them in her office and a coffee cup depicting them.
Chemistry was her life. Even as a young girl, family lore had it, she concocted various mixtures in the kitchen and more than once sent family members scurrying outside from the smell of her latest creation.
Her passion would serve her later in life when she became a pioneering chemist at Aveda, the Minnesota-based skin care products company, where she was a vice president for research and development.
Peterson Werre died of brain cancer on Jan. 30 at her Stillwater home. She was 61.
She was hired by Aveda founder Horst Rechelbacher in 1989 as a senior chemist and eventually handled oversight of groups that developed products in skin care, hair care, spas and color cosmetics. She also managed the Botanical Research Group, which was responsible for the development of active ingredients for Aveda products.
She encouraged the pursuit of sustainable plant materials that could be used for functional ingredients in Aveda products, said Cindy Angerhofer, Aveda executive director of botanical research and a longtime colleague and friend.
“She always had a positive attitude. It was ‘Let’s find a way to do it with the Aveda mission in mind,’ a way to do things with natural products, plants with green chemistry, things that have a positive impact on the earth or at least avoid a negative impact,” Angerhofer said. “Pat would always say, ‘It’s really wonderful to work at Aveda, and it’s really, really hard because you have to be dedicated to doing things a harder way that end up with a better product.’ ”
Peterson Werre once attached bottles of various motor oils to herself as a mockery of the chemical ingredients in cosmetics and called herself Petro Patty.
Throughout her career she had a knack for making the complexities of chemistry understandable, a skill that helped grow the Aveda line internationally. Her talents at instruction and interpersonal communication got her the unofficial title of Aveda’s global research and development ambassador, Angerhofer said. The skill also contributed to her work in a group known as Young Women in Science. She spent 20 years traveling the nation promoting young women in the sciences.
“People just loved the way that she was able to know the chemistry and answer tough questions,” Angerhofer said. “She would be able to explain the science in a way that people could understand and didn’t make them feel stupid.”
Before Aveda, Peterson Werre helped develop other products, including antiperspirants, hair relaxers, permanent waves, curl activators and a wide variety of skin care. Some of her work involved donning a candy-striper-like uniform and selling hair care products to black women in the South, a task that might have proved daunting for any other Minnesota blonde of Scandinavian descent, said Bruce Werre, her husband of six years.
“She would travel and essentially talk to salons and talk to people about the hair straightener,” Werre said. “She said, ‘I couldn’t have been any more whiter.’ ”
Peterson Werre was born in Long Prairie, Minn., and graduated from Minnetonka High School in 1972. Through a circuitous route, she went on to obtain degrees from the University of Minnesota and St. Scholastica in Duluth. It was at St. Scholastica where a nun recognized her talent in chemistry and encouraged her to pursue the field further.
Besides her husband, survivors include a daughter, Kathy Nordby, of Coon Rapids; sons, Mike Rohde, of Shoreview, and Scott Rohde, of Locust Grove. Ga.; and sisters Sue Peterson, of Hanover, Nancy Christianson, of Carver; Jill Connors, of Crystal; and Jane Torzewski, of Rochester.
A celebration of her life is scheduled for May 1 from 1 to 5 p.m. on the Plaza Level of the Stillwater Public Library.