The 1970s is marketed these days as a gruesome decade when power cuts came daily and wildcat strikers left bodies piling up in mortuaries. However, it also saw the country's single greatest technical venture, the extraction of North Sea oil, and the pioneering of distance learning by the Open University. The OU's first principal, Professor Walter Perry, was the ''indispensable man'' in this remarkable success.

''Your new boss has just remarried, has a new baby, and has just had a heart attack,'' said a colleague from a conventional university. It was obviously schadenfreude time. Perry's first marriage to Elizabeth Anne Grant in 1946 had ended, and his new wife, Cathie Crawley, was faced with several worrying months. But, even after an ominous change of government, there was the man who had interviewed me, large as life, tinkling the ivories of Walton Hall's elderly upright, fag clamped in mouth and double whisky rattling away on top of the piano.

After a career which had taken him from a Dundee medical education (paid for partly by singing everything from Burns to Schubert) via the colonial service, the RAF and the Medical Research Council to the chair of pharmacology at Edinburgh, Walter (no-one called him anything else) was in charge of an estate-full of opinionated dons. Jennie Lee, from a similar Scottish background and a wise old BBC cove, called John Scupham, had chosen well.

Pragmatism, and not ''Laing Macdonald'', could have been his middle name. In his first ''guesstimates'' about the OU Perry seemed to have the notion of a super-office which would communicate with the students through printed teaching material, backed up by local counselling (a vogue word in the 1960s). The BBC input into this seemed at first more to do with the centralised dynamism of John Reith - whom he resembled in no other way - than with imaginative broadcasting.

His idea was that this would be limited to five to 10 minute advisory chats. Nor did he initially see research or the regions as essential. What was remarkable was his openness to ideas - ''Convince me'', delivered in that hoarse, well-marinated voice - his readiness to change, and his grasp of the way such an organisation could best function. Did he pick up Anthony Jay's thesis in Corporation Man, his study of the BBC, that things worked best by using a federation of decisive bodies, no more than 12-strong in membership, which could come to consensual decisions?

Maybe, but given his background in the services and research outfits, Perry would probably have learned this for himself. This would explain why he changed his aims and objectives to create an institution which by appealing to the imagination and the career drives of its staff, produced a synergy much greater than the sum of its parts, and going way beyond its original remit.

The university's planning group, which made the first appointments, gave way to a central body of deans and executive officers, managed by the equally informal Anastasios Christodoulou. Reporting to it were the regional directors and the original small faculties, and beneath them the course teams and working groups that produced the course units, their broadcast components, and teaching/ examining back-up.

All this depended on enough people in these various bodies knowing one another, and Perry kept in touch with them, operating from the bar in the cellar of Walton Hall or chatting to the young members of his personal staff and their friends. Of his own initiatives and appointments some were brilliant, some were disastrous, and some so eccentric as to dynamise common action among their juniors.

If Perry guessed that they had the right idea, seniority was no defence. He was a natural moderate when the early ethos of the OU was left - even, in the cases of Mike Pentz, dean of science, and Arnold Kettle, professor of literature, far left. But what mattered was competence and loyalty to the institution. Six separate foundation courses were up and running by January 1971, with most staff barely 14 months in post.

Moreover, once the courses were out, the system was finessed by feedback from regional and part-time staff. Even given pre-PC technology, the OU could react to practical experience and modify its methods. This helped to

develop honours courses, and put the OU ahead of continental competitors, some of which, such as Germany's Fernuni Hagen, predated it. By the time Perry retired in 1980, the OU was indubitably the

world's best.

Walter Laing Macdonald Perry was educated at the Morgan Academy, Dundee, Ayr Academy, and Dundee High School. He went to St Andrews University, graduating MB,ChB in 1943 and obtaining his MD in 1948.

After residential appointments at Dundee Royal Infirmary, he went to Nigeria as a colonial medical officer for two years. He was the only doctor in a province the size of Scotland with a population of half a million. In that time he performed more than 500 major operations, as well as running the 120-bed hospital and making periodic visits to 10 outlying dispensaries. This capacity for hard work was much in evidence during the early years of the OU.

In 1947 he joined the Medical Research Council, and five years later was appointed director of biological standards with the National Institute for Medical Research where he was involved in the development of the polio vaccine. He was apppointed OBE in 1957.

In 1958, Perry was appointed professor of pharmacology at Edinburgh University, an appointment he held for 10 years.

After he retired from the OU at the age of 60, Perry was made a life peer and served as the deputy leader of the SDP in the House of Lords where he chaired a variety of influential committees, including one in 1998 which made the controversial recommendation that doctors should be alllowed to prescribe cannabis.

Although the proposal was rejected by the government, the committee's findings have informed much of the debate which has taken place since.

When the news of Perry's death came through, I had on my desk von Menzel's portrait of the Marshal of Keith, Frederick the Great's general. Keith is muffled in a vast greatcoat, clasping a field-glass and looking over a battlefield. A rough Scots profile, whose eyes are second-guessing the opposition, three or four moves ahead. Walter Perry was like that, luckily for us.

Lord Perry of Walton, medical officer and pioneer

in education; born

June 16, 1921, died July

17, 2003.