Byron Brown Jr., influential biostatistician, dies at 74

Byron Brown

Byron “Bill” Brown Jr., PhD, one of the nation’s foremost biostatisticians and the former chair of the Department of Health Policy and Research, collapsed of a heart attack Nov. 30 at his home on campus and died shortly thereafter at Stanford Hospital. He was 74.

In more than 30 years of work at Stanford, Brown had a hand in a wide array of studies in such diverse fields as cancer treatment, anesthesia practices, rheumatology and women’s health. He was particularly interested in the design of clinical trials and how new medical technologies were assessed for their safety and effectiveness. “He was a great doctor, only his ‘patients’ were medical research studies,” said Mark Hlatky, MD, PhD, Brown’s successor as department chair. “He had a tremendous impact here at Stanford, building clinical research and building biostatistics to its current level of excellence.”

A consultant for 10 years to the National Academy of Sciences, Brown participated in its celebrated study of variation in surgical death rates. He authored numerous journal publications, including a landmark paper in 1981 on the treatment of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. He also wrote several books, including the popular book, co-written with Myles Hollander, Statistics: A Biomedical Introduction. He received many honors and was elected in 1990 to the prestigious Institute of Medicine. He served as president of the Society for Clinical Trials and of the Western North American Region of the International Biometric Society.

Brown was born in Chicago and grew up in Redwing, Minn. He graduated from the University of Minnesota in 1952, receiving his MS there in 1955 and his PhD in 1959. He served on the faculty at the University of Minnesota. for nine years, becoming the chair of the Division of Biometry.

Although Brown’s ties to Minnesota were strong, the die was cast in the early 1960s when he visited Stanford. A few years later, in 1968, he joined Stanford’s full-time faculty as a professor of biostatistics. He became the chair of the newly restructured Department of Health Research and Policy, which includes epidemiology, biostatistics and health services research, in 1988. He served as department chair until 1996, when Hlatky, professor of health research and policy, assumed the position. “Bill was absolutely superb as a consulting statistician to medical researchers, and so many good studies would never have been done at Stanford without him,” Hlatky said.

Ron Levy, MD, professor and chief of the division of oncology, called Brown “a gentleman, a scholar and a good friend. He was constantly teaching how to seek the truth while warning us how difficult that is. It was amazing to learn how many projects he was simultaneously involved with and how many collaborations he had. We will all miss him dearly.”

Added Robert Tibshirani, PhD, professor of biostatistics and associate chair of the Department of Health Research and Policy: “Bill was a wonderful colleague and human being. His spirit overflowed with enthusiasm, wisdom and common sense. He was revered by his collaborators in the medical school, and he was an inspiration to all of us. Even as an emeritus professor, he worked generously for the department and for Stanford without a trace of ego or self-interest. We all loved him.”

Brown retired from Stanford in 1998 but remained active as an emeritus faculty member. He continued to be involved in the medical school’s ongoing efforts to have its cancer center designated by the National Cancer Institute as a Comprehensive Cancer Center. An avid bird watcher, he volunteered at the university’s Jasper Ridge Biological Reserve. He also loved to garden and maintained an extensive cactus collection.

He leaves behind his wife, Jan, and five children, Bill, Eric, Madeleine, Mark and Lisa, and three grandchildren. His son, Alan, died in 1979.

Funeral services will be private. A memorial service is planned for a later date. The family suggests contributions to the Nature Conservancy in his memory.