Former UW prof who linked hepatitis B, cancer dies
Thursday, August 30, 2012
SEATTLE — 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.
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 from pancreatic cancer. He was 76.
In the early 1970s, as a fellow in what became the UW School of Public Health, Beasley 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 Dr. 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."
Dr. J. Thomas Grayston, then Beasley's supervisor at the UW, recalls a bit of friction in that regard. "We talked to him about coming back, and he wasn't going to do that," said Grayston, the founding dean of the UW School of Public Health.
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 UW, which lasted nearly two decades, and his affection for Seattle, "the city where my heart is," he said in a 1999 UW video.
Beasley and his colleagues proved that the hepatitis B virus is a main cause of liver cancer and that childbirth can transmit the virus from a mother to her baby.