Paul Bruce Beeson, MD
October 18, 1908-August 14, 2006
Paul Bruce Beeson, a distinguished physician, researcher and teacher whose compassionate dedication to patient care inspired generations of medical students, died August 14 in Exeter, NH. He was 97 years old.
Dr. Beeson was chairman of the departments of medicine at Emory and Yale Universities, was a member of the National Academy of Sciences and received numerous honors for his work, including the Kober Medal, the highest award given by the Association of American Physicians. In 1973, Queen Elizabeth II named him an Honorary Knight Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, a rare honor for an American, in recognition of Beeson’s service as Nuffield Professor of Medicine at Oxford, one of the highest positions in academic medicine in England.
An expert in infectious disease, Dr. Beeson was an editor of the two major textbooks on internal medicine used in medical schools around the world. Dr. Beeson was an editor of Harrison’s Principals of Internal Medicine during its first two editions and, with Walsh McDermott, co-edited five editions of the Cecil-Loeb Textbook of Medicine, beginning in 1958. Both books have been fundamental tools in medical education and medical practice for decades. He was a co-editor of the Oxford Companion to Medicine.
Beyond those accomplishments, colleagues say Dr. Beeson’s most important legacy is the standard he set as a caring physician and bedside teacher, who by his own example, conveyed to his students the importance of patients as human beings.
“Paul Beeson was revered by patients, students and colleagues as the perfect example of a doctor—a healer with skill, dedication, understanding and compassion,” said his biographer, Dr. Richard Rapport, whose book Physician: The Life of Paul Beeson was published in 2001. As medicine has become more industrialized and impersonal, Rapport wrote “there remains the example of Paul Beeson sitting beside a patient on an open ward, surrounded by students, listening to clues, fears and questions embedded in the story of a single sick person.”
Dr. Beeson was on the forefront of research into the mechanisms of fever, infectious disease and immunology in the 1930s and 1940s. While at Emory, in 1943, he discovered that hepatitis may be transmitted by blood transfusion. As a scientist, Dr. Beeson was the first to identify the proteins in white blood cells known as cytokines, which are known to influence infection and cancer. The substance is now known as Interleukin-1. Later in his career, Dr. Beeson focused on geriatric care and, as a member of Washington Physicians for Social Responsibility based in Seattle, he was an ardent opponent of nuclear proliferation.
Born in 1908 in Livingston, MT, Paul Beeson spent most of his childhood in Anchorage, AK, where his father, John Beeson, was a general practitioner and surgeon for the Alaskan Railway. The modern day Iditarod dog-sled race from Anchorage to Nome follows the first part of a trail that John Beeson had driven in 1921, 400 hundred miles on dogsled, to reach an ailing patient in Iditarod.
Paul Beeson attended the University of Washington in Seattle for three years, and at the age of 19, joined his older brother Harold at McGill University Medical School in Montreal, which accepted him before he finished his undergraduate education. Following an internship at the University of Pennsylvania, Beeson entered practice with his brother and father, who had begun a general practice in Wooster, OH. He soon left, however, to pursue research at the Rockefeller Institute and Hospital in New York.
He worked in the laboratory of Dr. Oswald Avery, the scientist who discovered that DNA is the substance of genetic material 20 years before Watson and Crick described the structure of the molecule. Dr. Beeson left New York in 1939 for the Harvard University Medical Service at the Peter Bent Brigham Hospital in Boston, where he became chief resident to Dr. Soma Weiss. Beeson, in an interview published in the Annals of Internal Medicine in 2000, described his time at the Brigham with Weiss as his mentor as a “sort of Camelot” for young doctors. Weiss’s dedication to his students, and his respectful concern for his patients as people, not just as teaching tools, had a profound influence on Beeson throughout his life in clinical medicine.
During World War II, Dr. Beeson volunteered to work at the Harvard-Red Cross Field Hospital in Salisbury, England. During that time, he met a young American Red Cross nurse, Barbara Neal, whom he married in Buffalo, NY, in July 1942.
Following his service in England, Beeson went to Emory University and served as chairman of the department of medicine from 1947 to 1952. He was then recruited by Yale University and during his tenure as chairman there, from 1952 to 1965, the Department of Medicine underwent rapid growth. In 1981, the Paul B.Beeson Professorship in Internal Medicine was established at the Yale School of Medicine, endowed by a former colleague, Dr. Elisha Atkins of Belmont, MA, and his wife, Elizabeth. In 1996, the Yale University Medical School named its medical service in Dr. Beeson’s honor.
In 1965, Dr. Beeson left Yale for Oxford to accept an appointment as the Nuffield Professor of Medicine and remained there for 10 years, where he was a fellow of Magdalen College. When he returned to the United States, he and Barbara settled in Redmond, WA, outside of Seattle. Dr. Beeson served as the Veterans Administration Distinguished Professor of Medicine at the University of Washington School of Medicine in Seattle until his retirement in 1981. For many years afterwards he continued to write and edit medical articles and journals and attended rounds at the Veterans Administration Hospital.
Dr. Beeson was a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and a Master of the American College of Physicians, which gave him the John Phillips Memorial Award in 1976. He received the Bristol Award for distinguished achievement and leadership in his field from the Infectious Diseases Society of America in 1972 and the Kober Medal in 1973. He has received honorary Doctor of Science degrees from Emory, McGill, Yale, and Albany Medical College.
Dr. Beeson is survived by his wife of 64 years, Barbara, of Exeter, his children, John N. Beeson of Livingston, NJ, Peter G. Beeson of Concord, NH, and Judith Beeson Assirelli, of Montello, Italy; six grandchildren; and a great-granddaughter.