NEW YORK — Dr. R. Palmer Beasley, an epidemiologist who discovered that hepatitis B is easily transferred from mothers to infants during childbirth, confirmed the role of the virus in causing liver cancer, and saved millions of lives by helping to persuade world health officials to include a vaccine for the virus in its global recommendations for immunizations, died Saturday at his home in Houston. He was 76.
The cause was pancreatic cancer, said his wife, Dr. Lu-Yu Hwang.
Dr. Beasley became particularly interested in hepatitis B in the mid-1960s, after it was isolated in the blood serum of an aboriginal Australian by Dr. Baruch S. Blumberg, an American who later helped develop the vaccine and shared the Nobel Prize for his research .
Hepatitis B and liver cancer were far more common in developing countries than in the United States, and Blumberg and others struggled to understand why. Dr. Beasley and his colleagues who discovered that in developing countries hepatitis B, a blood-borne virus, was commonly passed from mother to infant during birth.
At the time, Dr. Beasley was on the faculty of the University of Washington but was working in Taiwan, at a special US medical research unit in Taipei. He and his colleagues began what became a decades-long study of 22,000 Taiwanese civil servants, which helped determine that immunizing infants at birth was the best way to prevent them from contracting hepatitis B as well as cirrhosis and liver cancer. Before the vaccine , infants had a higher rate of contracting a chronic form of the virus, which often showed no symptoms until it developed into cirrhosis or liver cancer decades later.
‘It’s almost like an Albert Schweitzer trying to figure out Africa’
Through the Taiwan study, Dr. Beasley and his colleagues eventually were able to show that the vaccine was successful at preventing the spread of the virus and, therefore, the cancer it caused.
‘‘He not only got the data, but then worked tirelessly with the information he had to convince others that prevention was urgent and possible,’’ said Dr. Cladd Stevens, one of his students and collaborators in Taiwan.
Dr. Beasley spent nearly 15 years in Taiwan at a time when its relations with the United States were complicated by America’s improving relationship with China, which has long claimed Taiwan as a territory. In 1984, he persuaded Taiwanese public health officials to make the country one of the first to promote infant vaccination for hepatitis B, and his advocacy was crucial when the World Health Organization added hepatitis B to its list of recommended infant vaccinations by the early 1990s. ‘‘It’s almost like an Albert Schweitzer trying to figure out Africa,’’ said Dr. Herbert DuPont, the director of the Center for Infectious Diseases at the University of Texas. ‘‘It’s a very unusual thing in medicine to see a senior person like Palmer Beasley living and fighting those wars himself.’’
In 1987, a year after leaving Taiwan, Dr. Beasley became the dean of the School of Public Health at the University of Texas.
In 2003, he returned to Taiwan as part of a delegation from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to help control the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS.
Robert Palmer Beasley was born in 1936, in Los Angeles. After graduating from Dartmouth College, Dr. Beasley received his medical degree from Harvard.