Lives of the fellows

Paul Bruce Beeson

b.18 October 1908 d.14 August 2006
KBE(1973) MD McGill(1933) FRCP(1966)

Paul Beeson was one of the most distinguished academic clinicians of his generation on both sides of the Atlantic. His clear-minded appreciation of both the undergraduate and postgraduate roles of a teaching hospital left an indelible impression on the several major institutions in which he served as chairman of the department of medicine.

Paul was born in rural Montana and spent his childhood in Anchorage, Alaska, where his father, John Bradley Beeson, was a general practitioner and also a surgeon to the Alaskan railway. There is no doubt that Paul’s later excellence as a particularly caring doctor must have been heavily influenced by observing the work of his father, who often had to travel miles by dog-sled to visit his patients. Paul’s mother was Martha Gerard née Ash. He entered Washington University in Seattle for his early degree courses and then, at the age of 19, joined his brother at McGill Medical School, which accepted him before he had even finished his undergraduate education. He qualified at McGill in 1933 and after a two year internship at the University of Pennsylvania joined his father’s practice in Wooster, Ohio, where he worked from 1935 to 1937.

Although Paul was very happy in his father’s practice, his period at McGill had stimulated his interest in research and in 1937 he left Wooster to become a research fellow at the Rockefeller Institute in New York, where he spent two years working in the laboratory of Oswald Avery. This must have been a particularly exciting experience for Paul because it was during this time that Avery and his colleagues Cohn MacLeod and Maclyn McCarty were carrying out their classical experiments in which they isolated and purified DNA and showed unequivocally that it is the agent associated with the phenomenon of bacterial transformation.

In 1939 Paul moved to the Peter Brent Brigham Hospital in Boston, where he came under the influence of Soma Weiss, a brilliant teacher and departmental leader. However, his stay at Harvard was cut short by the outbreak of the Second World War. Because of his increasing expertise in infectious disease he was appointed as chief physician to the American Red Cross/Harvard field hospital unit, which had been established in Salisbury in the expectation that the UK would suffer major epidemics due to crowded conditions in air-raid shelters. Happily, this gloomy forecast did not turn out to be true and Paul returned to the USA to take up a position as assistant professor of medicine at Emory Medical School in Atlanta. He was appointed professor and chairman of medicine in 1946 and stayed at Emory until his move to chairman of medicine at Yale University Medical School, where he worked from 1952 to 1965.

At Yale, Beeson created a world-class department of medicine; his brilliant clinical and teaching expertise is still talked of with baited breath by his ex-residents to this day. His name was honoured by Yale by the establishment of the Paul B Beeson professorship in internal medicine in 1981. Over the years Paul continued to make important contributions to knowledge about infectious disease. With a variety of collaborators, notably Elisha Atkins and Robert Petersdorf, he made important contributions to our understanding of the pathophysiology of bacterial endocarditis, clinical and experimental pyelonephritis, the mechanisms and importance of eosinophilia, and the pathogenesis of fever.

In 1965 Paul moved to the UK to become Nuffield professor of clinical medicine at Oxford University, replacing the first holder of this post, Leslie Witts [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VII, p.618]. The post was associated with a fellowship at Magdalen College, something that Paul greatly appreciated. In Oxford he tried to follow the traditions that he had established at Yale and built up a small research team in infectious disease, believing that this specialty should not be confined to the laboratory, but should spread across internal medicine as well. Several of his research fellows in Oxford went on to have distinguished careers, particularly in immunology and infectious disease. He re-organised undergraduate teaching in medicine and, as at Yale, set extremely high clinical standards in the professorial department. With typical generosity, he retired from the chair in Oxford a year earlier than he needed so that his successor, David Weatherall, would be able to have a hand in designing the new department which was to be created at the John Radcliffe Hospital.

In 1974 he returned to the USA and worked as Veterans Administration distinguished professor of medicine at Washington University in Seattle, where he remained until his retirement as emeritus professor in 1981. He continued to do ward rounds and spent his time writing and editing books and journals.

Paul was a prolific writer throughout his long career. He published The eosinophil (Philadephia/London, Saunders) in 1977, and edited Harrison’s principles of internal medicine (London, McGraw-Hill) from 1950 to 1954 and Cecil-Loeb’s textbook of medicine (Philadelphia/London, Saunders) from 1959 to 1982. He was also a co-editor of The Oxford companion to medicine (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1986). After his early scientific publications on various aspects of infectious disease, later in his life he wrote extensively on various aspects of medicine and medical practice. Much of his later writing was directed at his concerns about the evolution of geriatric medicine; the US National Institute of Aging now offers career development fellowships that bear his name.

Paul’s work was widely recognised. He was elected a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, a Fellow of the College, a member of the National Academy of Sciences, and a master of the American College of Physicians. He received the Kober medal of the Association of American Physicians, the highest award of that body. He also received the John Phillips memorial award of the American College of Physicians, the Robert H Williams award of the Association of Professors of Medicine and the Bristol award of the Infectious Diseases Society of America. He served as president of the Association of American Physicians and as vice-president of the American Society for Clinical Investigation. He also received an honorary knighthood for his contributions to medicine in the UK in 1973.

Paul was a quiet, modest, but extremely sensitive person. Throughout his life his first priority was always to the care of his patients and he became disheartened about the dominance of over-specialisation in medical schools and the erosion of bonds between the doctor and the patient. In conversations with him after he returned to the States after his period in Oxford, it is clear that he viewed this period of his life as a mixed blessing. While he enjoyed the quality of young people in the medical school, and greatly appreciated the role of the National Health Service in medical care, he was frustrated that in his entire time in Oxford he was never able to make a senior appointment in the department and that the divide between academic doctors and those that worked for the NHS precluded him developing the kind of unified division of medicine that had worked so wonderfully for him at Yale. But these concerns never interfered with his work as a teacher and clinician in Oxford and he is remembered with warmth and gratitude by many of the medical students and young doctors that he trained.

Paul married a young American nurse, Barbara Neal, in 1942 and, with their two sons (John and Peter) and a daughter (Judith), they had an extremely happy marriage and life together. Paul was a voracious reader who enjoyed poker and golf, while Barbara’s major interest was in horses. Visiting them in their home near Seattle revealed just how complex this arrangement could be at times; Barbara lived with the horses in an outhouse while Paul had to look after the major part of their home!

In short, Paul Beeson was a remarkable general physician, teacher and major figure in infectious disease who left an indelible impression on academic medicine on both sides of the Atlantic during his long and illustrious career.

Sir David Weatherall

[Oxford Medicine February 2007 pp.14-15;,2006,333,604; The Lancet,2006,1232; The Independent 11 September 2006.]

(Volume XII, page web)

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