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Originally published August 30, 2012 at 10:37 AM | Page modified August 30, 2012 at 12:01 PM

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R. Palmer Beasley, whose UW research linked hepatitis B to cancer, dies at 76

Dr. R. Palmer Beasley, an epidemiologist whose research established the link between the hepatitis B virus and liver cancer — proof that a virus could cause a human cancer — has died. The former University of Washington faculty member was 76.

Seattle Times health reporter

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 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 Dr. 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.

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 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, 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.

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

Dr. Beasley didn't limit his curiosity to his work, said a daughter, Bernice Beasley, of Seattle.

"He was an adventurous spirit, a young spirit — he had a real thirst for knowledge," she said. "He wanted to see everything, experience everything."

On vacations, she said, the family didn't just go to resorts. "We went to indigenous villages, we drove through dangerous roads in Guatemala, into the jungle in Indonesia and Bali. ... He always wanted to experience more of the unknown."

Her father appreciated the world in its absolute fullest, she said — "its imperfections, its flaws, its beauty, and he wanted to make the world a better place by experiencing it firsthand."

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 Dr. Baruch Blumberg said at the award ceremony, according to the foundation.

Robert Palmer Beasley was born in Glendale, Calif., graduated with a degree in philosophy from Dartmouth College in 1958, an M.D. from Harvard in 1962, and a master's degree in preventive medicine from the UW in 1969.

After interning at Harborview Medical Center, he worked as an epidemic investigator for what is now the U.S. 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 Dr. 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 UW. 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 intrepid young doctors packed it up in dry ice for shipment to a secure lab in Maryland. "It was a big adventure," Gale recalled.

In 1965, Dr. Beasley returned to the UW for his residency and as a fellow in preventive medicine.

From 1987 to 2005, Dr. Beasley was dean of the University of Texas School of Public Health, where he founded its Center for Infectious Diseases and the Center for International Training and Research, which helped train international students in public health.

Bruce Beasley, a sculptor in Oakland, Calif., said his brother was a great teacher, always crediting students who helped in his research. "He was a very generous spirit."

Dr. Beasley is also survived by his wife, Dr. Lu-Yu Hwang, of Houston, an epidemiologist who collaborated with him on his research; and children Monica Payson, of Seattle, and Fletcher Beasley, of Los Angeles.

Carol M. Ostrom: 206-464-2249 or costrom@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @costrom.

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