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NCI's Beebe Retires to Emeritus Status

By Nancy Volkers

Dr. Gilbert Wheeler Beebe, one of the world's leading authorities on radiation effects, recently retired at age 89 after a 60-year research career. Although "officially" retired, he plans to remain at NCI as scientist emeritus.

Born in Mahwah, N.J., in 1912, he received a B.A. in sociology from Dartmouth College and an M.A. (in sociology) and a Ph.D. (in sociology and statistics) from Columbia University. He has worked for the National Committee on Maternal Health, the Milbank Memorial Fund, the U.S. Army's Office of the Surgeon General, the Hoover Commission (charged with reorganizing the executive branch of the government), the Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission, the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences, and, since 1977, NCI.

Dr. Gilbert W. Beebe

He has been author, coauthor or coeditor of five books and has published more than 130 journal articles and book chapters since 1936. Beebe has received the Public Health Service Special Recognition Award and the NIH Director's Award.

His involvement in radiation effects started after World War II, when he organized the Medical Follow-up Agency of the National Research Council to study the health effects of U.S. veterans' special exposures, conditions and experiences during military service. His responsibilities extended to designing follow-up studies of Japanese citizens who survived the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. His work as the architect of this pioneering research project laid the foundation for much of our current understanding of the carcinogenic effects of ionizing radiation.

In 1977, Beebe joined NCI as a health statistician in the epidemiology program, and in 1994 he joined the Radiation Epidemiology Branch. When the Chornobyl research unit was formed within the branch in 1999, he was appointed as its head.

Beebe's work at NCI has focused on the development of a highly complex and multidisciplinary project to study the health consequences of the 1986 accident at the Chornobyl nuclear facility in Ukraine. He and staff members, in collaboration with investigators in Ukraine and Belarus and at Columbia University, are studying children exposed to radioiodines, and 88,000 cleanup workers exposed to whole-body gamma radiation. The study should help clarify the risk of leukemia from radiation exposure and provide better estimates of the time lapse between exposure and development of the cancer.

Colleagues remember his sense of humor — which he never hesitates to use on himself — and his underlying respect for others. They also mention tenacity, thoroughness, and "going the step beyond where others are satisfied or just tired."

"He is a very unselfish person who works hard, accomplishes much, writes well, speaks his mind clearly, and is articulate and careful to acknowledge those to whom credit is due," wrote Dr. A. Bertrand (Randy) Brill, a research professor at Vanderbilt University. "When asked for his comments he has always spoken out with a directness that I have found refreshing, even when it is something I did not want to hear."

Dr. Elena Buglova, from the Research Clinical Institute of Radiation Medicine and Endocrinology in Belarus, has worked closely with Beebe on the Chornobyl project. She called him "the father and grandfather of the project, advisor and consultant, expert and supervisor." She recalled: "Meetings with Dr. Beebe were a practical school in epidemiology. But this school was more pleasant than the usual one because of the kind character of Gil and his sense of humor." The first time Beebe cracked a joke, Buglova thought she had misunderstood his English; she did not expect "such a famous specialist" to say something funny.

Dr. Scott Davis, chair of the department of epidemiology at the University of Washington, Seattle, first met Beebe when Davis was a newly minted Ph.D. working at the Radiation Effects Research Foundation (RERF) in Hiroshima. Davis was asked to present at the annual meeting of the Science Council findings from a study he initiated on pancreatic cancer. "This was a big event at RERF, with many dignitaries and experts in attendance," Davis recalled. "I was scared to death."

After the presentation, Beebe asked to meet Davis and discuss the work. "You listened intently as I described my projects in more detail, you offered insightful advice and suggestions, and above all you were incredibly supportive and encouraging," remembered Davis.

His closing words to Beebe capture the feelings of all who have worked with him: "You are greatly admired not only for your insightful scientific work and many contributions, but also for the kindness you show to others and the human touch that transcends all of your work."

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