R. Palmer Beasley, hepatitis B expert, dies at 76


Dr. R. Palmer Beasley, shown in 2000, developed breakthroughs in the prevention of hepatitis B transmission from mothers to infants. (Steve Ueckert/Houston Chronicle)
August 30, 2012

Adventurous, meticulous and intensely curious about the world and its people, Dr. R. Palmer Beasley, epidemiologist and infectious-disease expert, used those skills to discover the link between the hepatitis B virus and liver cancer — proof that a virus could cause a human cancer, and a finding that ultimately led to vaccinations that saved hundreds of thousands of lives.

Dr. Beasley, a former University of Washington faculty member and dean of the University of Texas School of Public Health, died Aug. 25 at his home in Houston. He was 76. His death, from pancreatic cancer, was confirmed by his wife Lu-Yu Hwang.

Measles, plague, HIV — they all intrigued Dr. Beasley, who had decided as a student at Harvard Medical School that he wanted to be an epidemiologist, studying infectious diseases. In the early 1970s, as a fellow at what later became the University of Washington School of Public Health, he jumped at the chance to go to Taiwan to research rubella (German measles). There, he became determined to delve into the mysteries of hepatitis B, which he considered the least understood unconquered virus of the time.

“He took an approach like Albert Schweitzer,” said Herbert DuPont, director of the Center for Infectious Diseases at the University of Texas. “He lived in the field, he worked with patients, with the people. He didn’t go back to Seattle and sit in an office at the University of Washington and contact people in Taiwan.”

J. Thomas Grayston, then Dr. Beasley’s supervisor at the University of Washington, recalls a bit of friction in that regard. “We talked to him about coming back, and he wasn’t going to do that,” he said.

Dr. Beasley arranged independent funding for his research project, married a co-researcher and settled down in Taiwan, where he would spend the next 14 years. But he kept his affiliation with the University of Washington, which lasted nearly two decades.

With exacting attention to detail, Dr. Beasley and his colleagues designed long-term studies that would follow more than 22,000 Taiwanese government workers for decades, in the process proving that the hepatitis B virus is a main cause of liver cancer — at the time a controversial theory — and that childbirth can transmit the virus from a mother to her baby, who becomes a carrier and much more likely to develop liver cancer.

Dr. Beasley found that a shot of immune globulin at birth protected babies; later, his work helped push the World Health Organization to include the hepatitis B vaccine in routine vaccination programs.

For his work, Dr. Beasley was awarded the King Faisal International Prize in Medicine, the Charles S. Mott Prize, the Maxwell Finland Award for Scientific Achievement and the 2010 Distinguished Scientist Award by the Hepatitis B Foundation.

“There are at least a million people alive today who otherwise would not be here if not for Dr. Beasley’s pioneering research in hepatitis B,” Nobel laureate Baruch Blumberg said at the award ceremony, according to the foundation.

Robert Palmer Beasley was born in Glendale, Calif. He received a degree in philosophy from Dartmouth College in 1958, a medical degree from Harvard University in 1962 and a master’s degree in preventive medicine from the University of Washington in 1969.

Early in his career, he worked as an epidemic investigator for what is now the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta from 1963 to 1965, including an assignment to find a sample of plague in Bolivia.

Riding in trucks and on burros, he and his colleague James Gale tracked down plague in a tiny village on the east side of the Andes, said Gale, now an emeritus professor of epidemiology at the University of Washington. Because the disease had killed nearly all those in the village, they had to exhume a body, cut off a finger and get it back to the capital city, where the material containing the plague was injected into a guinea pig, which promptly died.

Assured that the pathogen was still viable, the two doctors packed it up in dry ice for shipment to a secure lab in Maryland.

From 1987 to 2005, Dr. Beasley was dean of the University of Texas School of Public Health.

His first marriage, to Sonia Garon, ended in divorce. Survivors include his wife of 32 years, Dr. Lu-Yu Hwang of Houston, an epidemiologist who collaborated with him on his research; two children from his first marriage, Monica Payson of Seattle and Fletcher Beasley of Los Angeles; a daughter from his second marriage, Bernice Hwang Beasley of Seattle; a brother; and two grandchildren.

— Seattle Times and staff reports