Lives of the fellows

Alexander Gordon Bearn

b.29 March 1923 d.15 May 2009
MB BS Lond(1946) MD(1950) MRCP Edin FRCP Edin FRCP(1970)

Alexander Gordon Bearn, or ‘Alick’ as he was known, was a former professor of medicine at Cornell University. His work in the 1950s, revealing the genetic roots of Wilson’s disease, helped establish the field of human biochemical genetics. He was born in Cheam, Surrey, the son of Edward Gordon Bearn, an under-secretary at the Ministry of Health, and Rose née Kay, the daughter of a physician. He was educated at Epsom College, and then went on to study medicine at Guy’s Hospital Medical School.

He was a house officer at Guy’s from 1946 to 1947. From 1947 to 1949 he served in the Royal Air Force as a medical officer, followed by resident appointments at the Postgraduate Medical School, Hammersmith Hospital, first with John McMichael [Munk’s Roll, Vol.IX, p.341] and then with Sheila Sherlock [Munk’s Roll, Vol.XI, p.514].

In 1951 he left London for New York for one year to join the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research (later Rockefeller University), where he was to remain and become successively assistant professor, professor, visiting physician and adjunct professor. From 1966 to 1979 he was professor of medicine at Cornell University. He then joined Merck as vice president, a post he held until his retirement in 1988. From 1997 until 2002 he was executive officer at the American Philosophical Society.

His research at Rockefeller in the 1950s, which helped pioneer the application of genetics to clinical medicine, showed that Wilson’s disease, a rare liver disorder, is inherited as a recessive trait.

At various times he was on the board of the Royal Society of Medicine Foundation and the Rockefeller University, where he was a trustee from 1970 to 1998, as well as research institutions and non-profit foundations, including the Jackson Laboratory, the Helen Hay Whitney Foundation, Josiah Macy Foundation and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

He gave numerous distinguished lectures, including the Lilly lecture at the College (1973), the Harvey lecture in New York (1975), at the Medical Society of London (1976) and at St Bartholomew’s Hospital (1977). His awards included the Benjamin Franklin medal of the American Philosophical Society (2001), the David Rockefeller Award (2002) and the award of the American College of Nutrition (1972).

Alexander Bearn edited Progress in medical genetics and was an associate editor of Cecil-Loeb’s Textbook of medicine (Philadelphia and London, Saunders). He also wrote three scientific biographies – Archibald Garrod and the individuality of man (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1993), Sir Clifford Allbutt: scholar and physician (London, Royal College of Physicians, 2007) and Sir Francis Fraser 1885-1964: a canny Scot shapes British medicine (Brighton, Book Guild, 2008). He was on the editorial board of numerous journals of genetics and heredity, and was editor-in-chief of the American Journal of Medicine (from 1971 to 1979).

He was a visiting professor in numerous countries, including the United States, Canada and England, and was a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the American Philosophical Society, and a fellow of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh, of London and of the Royal Society of Medicine. He was a Distinguished Visiting Fellow at Christ’s College, Cambridge, from 1996 to 1997, and then was named a Fellow Commoner. He was a Freeman of the City of London and was an honorary member of medical societies in Korea, Norway and Chile.

Alick Bearn was a larger than life character. His friends amounted to all those people he met, for they readily responded to his charm and bonhomie. He had a very happy marriage to Margaret née Slocum from 1952 until his death. Both were deservedly proud of their son Gordon, daughter Helen Pennoyer and grandchildren. Alick also took pride in his Scottish background, his English life and, since 1969, his dual UK and US citizenship.

D Geraint James

[The New York Times 27 May 2009]

(Volume XII, page web)

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