Hepatitis B foeR. Palmer Beasley

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A physician, Beasley specialized in epidemiology — the study of the cause, spread, and control of diseases in the population at large. In the 1960s, he became particularly interested in hepatitis B after it was successfully isolated in a victim’s blood (by Dr. Baruch Blumberg, Honorary Unsubscribe honoree earlier in this volume). Beasley was puzzled as to why the liver disease — and liver cancer — was so prevalent in developing countries, but not developed countries. Beasley and his team made the key discovery: mothers passed it to offspring during childbirth, where it would sit dormant for decades before destroying the liver. By vaccinating the children at birth, he reasoned, that could be prevented — and that realization has saved millions of lives. “He not only got the data, but then worked tirelessly with the information he had to convince others that prevention was urgent and possible,” said Dr. Cladd Stevens, who worked with Beasley on the study in Taiwan. “It’s almost like an Albert Schweitzer trying to figure out Africa,” agreed Dr. Herbert DuPont, director of the Center for Infectious Diseases at the University of Texas. “It’s a very unusual thing in medicine to see a senior person like Palmer Beasley living and fighting those wars himself.”

After spending 15 years in Taiwan, in 1987 Beasley moved to the University of Texas, where he became dean of the School of Public Health, teaching a new generation of students so they could spread the vaccination program to other countries. “He also urged the World Health Organization to let Taiwan become a member/observer of the organization,” said Dr. Chien-Jen Chen of the National Taiwan University. “He emphasized that Taiwan should not be left as an orphan in global health.” Beasley’s only failure was that he had hoped to eradicate hepatitis B in his lifetime. It “isn’t eradicated, but it is eradicable,” he said in 2000. “What will do that is a long-term, systematic approach across the world.” Dr. Beasley died August 25 at his home in Houston, from pancreatic cancer. He was 76.

From This is True for 26 August 2012