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Epidemiologist R. Palmer Beasley dies

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.

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 in what became the UW 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 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.

With exacting attention to detail, 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.

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.

"He was an excellent investigator," Grayston said. "He had a very innovative way of thinking."

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