Harvard Public Health NOW

January 4, 2008

In Memoriam: Brian MacMahon

Brian MacMahon (brian-macmahon.jpg)Brian MacMahon, who chaired the Department of Epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health for 31 years, passed away on December 5, 2007, at the age of 84.

In a message to the HSPH community, Dean Barry Bloom said that MacMahon was a giant in the field of cancer epidemiology and became particularly recognized for his work on breast cancer etiology. In 1970, MacMahon was the lead author on a renowned international collaborative study that detailed an association between risk of breast cancer and the age at which women gave birth to their first child. The findings provided new insight into the protective mechanisms of pregnancy and prompted broader thinking about the causes of breast cancer.

In 1960, MacMahon co-authored Epidemiologic Methods with Thomas F. Pugh and Johannes Ipsen. This book became Epidemiology: Principles and Methods, published in 1970 and co-authored by MacMahon and Pugh. The text became widely recognized as a landmark epidemiology textbook in the U.S. A second edition was published in 1996, co-authored by MacMahon and HSPH Professor Dimitrios Trichopoulos.

In addition to his cancer studies, MacMahon was well-known for his papers on pyloric stenosis in infants. This condition interferes with the ability to digest food. At a time when genes were the primary focus of research underlying pyloric stenosis, MacMahon's research shed light on associated environmental factors.

In the 1940s, MacMahon attended the University of Birmingham, England, earning diplomas of the Royal Colleges of Physicians and Surgeons, as well as an MB, ChB, and DPH. From 1946 to 1948, he worked as a ship's doctor in the English Merchant Navy. In 1952, he earned a PhD in social medicine from the University of Birmingham. The following year, he came to HSPH, achieving a master's degree in epidemiology in 1953. Two years later, he obtained an MD with honors from the University of Birmingham.

MacMahon held appointments at the University of Birmingham and at the State University of New York, Downstate Medical Center, before accepting the position as head of the HSPH Department of Epidemiology in 1958. He served as the department's leader until 1989, passing the mantle to Trichopoulos.

In 1974, he was appointed Professor of Public Health at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, School of Public Health. In 1976, he was appointed Henry Pickering Walcott Professor of Epidemiology at HSPH. From 1977 to 1978, he served as Associate Dean for Academic Affairs at the School.

MacMahon received the National Divisional Distinguished Service Award from the American Cancer Society in 1971 and was elected to the Institute of Medicine in 1973. He was conferred the John Snow Award from the American Public Health Association in 1980, and he received the Charles S. Mott Prize from the General Motors Cancer Research Foundation in 1992. He received honorary doctorates from the University of Athens, the State University of New York, and the University of Birmingham, England.

A native of England, MacMahon became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1962.

MacMahon's family held a private service. In lieu of flowers, they ask that donations be made to the Brian and Heidi MacMahon Epidemiology Educational Fund, Office for Resource Development, HSPH, Attn: Gift Processing, 401 Park Dr., East Atrium, 3rd Floor, Boston, MA 02215.