December 15, 2006

Cancer research icon Byrd remembered

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Benjamin Byrd Jr., M.D., left, and his son, Benjamin Byrd III, M.D., at a lecture last year.
Photo by Mary Donaldson

Cancer research icon Byrd remembered

Benjamin Byrd Jr., right, with the late Randolph Batson, M.D., former vice chancellor for Medical Affairs, in the 1970s.

Benjamin Byrd Jr., right, with the late Randolph Batson, M.D., former vice chancellor for Medical Affairs, in the 1970s.

Benjamin F. Byrd Jr., M.D., a founding member of the board of overseers for Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center and a hometown champion for cancer prevention and research, died last Thursday. He was 88.

“It was a pleasure working with Dr. Byrd during the development of the Cancer Center. He was always totally supportive of our efforts and helped in many ways. He will be missed,” said Harold Moses, M.D., emeritus director of Vanderbilt-Ingram and longtime friend to Dr. Byrd.

Raymond DuBois, M.D., Ph.D., director of Vanderbilt-Ingram, holds the B.F. Byrd Jr. Professor of Oncology chair and echoed Moses' comments. “Dr. Byrd was really one of the pillars of the Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center. He worked extremely hard to make sure that we could have one of the best cancer centers in the country. I have never met anyone who was so dedicated to the cause and so willing to help out in every way possible,” said DuBois.

Born and raised in Nashville, Dr. Byrd was a former clinical professor of Surgery at Vanderbilt and earned his B.A. degree here in 1938 and his M.D. in 1941. His father, the late B.F. Byrd, M.D., graduated from Vanderbilt Medical School in 1916 and practiced here for years.

Vice Chancellor for Health Affairs, Harry Jacobson, M.D., said Dr. Byrd's leadership will be missed. “He was a very big man in size, but also in heart. His vision and support for cancer and his community will be remembered,” said Jacobson.

Dr. Byrd served in World War II as Commanding Officer of the 314th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital, known as M.A.S.H. He earned a Silver Star, Bronze Star and the Purple Heart for his service.

After the war he came back to Vanderbilt as a resident in surgery. In 1984, Dr. Byrd told then Nashville Banner medical writer Bill Snyder, who now works as a science writer and editor of Lens magazine for the Office of News and Public Affairs, that his wife was the first thing on his mind when he came back from the war.

“She was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen,” Dr. Byrd said. He married the former Allison Caldwell in 1950 in her parents' home, now known as the Belle Meade Mansion.

The couple had six children. His son, Benjamin Franklin Byrd III, M.D., is a professor of Medicine in the Vanderbilt Heart Institute. Another son, Andrew, remembered his father's giving nature.

“Dad was truly a remarkable individual. Very few people have the opportunity to be of service and touch so many lives as he did. It's a true legacy of selfless service.”

Dr. Byrd credited the late Barney Brooks, M.D., then professor of Surgery, for leading him to a future in cancer, particularly breast cancer research.

He served as local, state and national president of the American Cancer Society, chairman of the American College of Surgeons' Commission on Cancer, and chairman of the Tennessee Medical Association's Committee on Cancer.

Dr. Byrd was making the case for issues facing cancer patients and survivors years before others would join the cause. “There are 3 million Americans living with cured cancer or cancer under treatment, and there will be more, with better diagnosis. These people have problems getting and holding jobs and getting insurance,” said Byrd in the 1977 issue of Vanderbilt Alumnus.

Today there are nearly 10 million cancer survivors in the United States, many facing the same issues Dr. Byrd addressed nearly 30 years ago.

He was named outstanding Nashvillian in 1986 for his role as president of the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce. Under his leadership, the city became an American Airlines hub, gained the Saturn automotive plant and helped expand the airport terminal, among other developments.

When asked about his tireless contributions to the community in a Nashville Banner article, Dr. Byrd told then-business writer, Mary Hance, “My attitude is that if you don't take your turn being involved, you don't really have a right to complain about it. Some things take time, some things take money, some things take concern — you do each of the things when you need to.”

Dr. Byrd leaves behind his wife and their children, Benjamin, Barney, Damon, Andrew, John and Evelyn, and 11 grandchildren.