Brian Henderson

Brian Henderson

Former colleagues, friends and family will gather in Mayer Auditorium on Sept. 16 at 11 a.m. to celebrate Distinguished Professor Brian E. Henderson, the former dean of the Keck School of Medicine of USC.

Current Dean Carmen A. Puliafito, USC President C. L. Max Nikias and USC Norris Director Stephen B. Gruber will be among those offering tributes, as will professors Christopher Haiman and Sean Henderson, who is the son of Brian Henderson.

Henderson, who led the Keck School of Medicine of USC as dean between 2004 and 2007 and steered some of the school’s most prominent research centers, died June 20 at home in San Marino, Calif., at the age of 77 after a valiant 13-month battle against lung cancer.

Henderson held the Kenneth T. Norris Jr. Chair in Cancer Prevention and was the founding chair of the school’s nationally ranked Department of Preventive Medicine. He also served as the first director of the Zilkha Neurogenetic Institute and was director of the USC Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center when the USC Norris Cancer Hospital opened in 1983.

USC in 1999 presented Henderson with the Presidential Medallion, the university’s highest honor, for his pioneering research and service to the university.

“Brian Henderson was a beloved member of our Trojan Family for 45 years,” said USC President C. L. Max Nikias. “His many contributions to medicine, research, and our community — notably during his tenure as dean of our Keck School of Medicine — were both far-reaching and extraordinary. He built an exceptional legacy at USC, and in the field of medicine.”

Henderson began his career in medicine as a researcher in virology. As a young scientist, he ventured to Africa with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and spent 3 1/2 years studying yellow fever. He was also a member of the U.S. Delegation on Hemorrhagic Fevers to the Soviet Union in 1969 and went on to travel extensively in Asia, where he was part of the first official U.S. scientific delegation to the People’s Republic of China.

But with the dawn of the 1970s, researchers turned their attention to the great challenge of cancer — culminating with the U.S. declaring a “War on Cancer” under the Nixon Administration. Henderson changed his research focus and helped lead the charge.

“At that time we knew virtually nothing about the causes of cancer,” Henderson said in a 1999 interview.

That battle against the disease brought him to the Keck School in 1970 as an associate professor of pathology. He ultimately became one of the world’s preeminent authorities in cancer epidemiology — investigating rates and patterns of cancer incidence to seek factors that might raise or lower risk for the disease. He studied the interplay between environmental and genetic contributors to the disease. Among his most cited works were studies on the importance of reproductive hormones to diseases such as breast cancer, as well as the role of diet in reducing cancer risk.

In 1972, Henderson set up the Los Angeles Cancer Surveillance Program — the county’s cancer registry — at USC, where it remains today as a valuable resource to researchers nationwide. The registry has shed light on countless medical issues, such as the link between combination hormone replacement therapy and increased breast cancer risk in postmenopausal women and how intense smokers are more likely to develop aggressive, deadly bladder cancers.

In explaining the value of the registry at its 25th anniversary, Henderson put it simply: “First you find out who gets the disease within a certain population. When you identify a pattern of who gets it, then you have a clue about why people are getting it.”

Two decades later, he established the Hawaii-Los Angeles Multiethnic Cohort, an influential study following 215,000 people that has led to numerous influential findings on cancer risk factors. Its work continues today, with dozens of papers published from the study each year.

Stephen Gruber, director of the USC Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center, called Henderson a “towering figure in American medicine.”

“Dr. Henderson’s contributions as a physician, scholar and leader transformed our understanding of the hormonal basis of many human cancers, and led the way to effective medicines to prevent and treat cancer,” Gruber said. “He saved countless lives.”

Henderson led the USC Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center at a time of tremendous growth between 1983 and 1994. He also led the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in San Diego as its president from 1993 to 1995, returning to USC in 1996.

“During his decades of service to USC, Dr. Henderson brought significant prestige, as well as national and international recognition, to USC, the Keck School of Medicine and the USC Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center, because of the outstanding education and research programs he established and promoted,” said Keck School of Medicine Dean Carmen Puliafito. “Dr. Henderson was a warm and caring individual, a passionate scientist, a man of great integrity, and an excellent role model for young researchers and students.”

While Henderson was widely recognized for his contributions to cancer research, he pointed to the Keck School of Medicine’s education of future scientific minds as his greatest accomplishment.

“Looking back, I’m really proud to have helped build the scientific base of the medical school,” he said. “Mentoring students is something I just love.”

Henderson was inducted into the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences in 1992 and served as the president of the Society for Epidemiologic Research in the late 1990s. In 2004, he was one of the first scientific experts selected to the oversight committee for the California Institute of Regenerative Medicine — the state’s stem cell research entity. He also served on the board of trustees for Children’s Hospital Los Angeles.

Said Henderson of his career and work: “In the course of my travels, I feel fortunate to have been taught and to have received more than I could possibly have given.”

A graduate of the University of California, Berkeley, he received his medical degree from the University of Chicago Medical School. He completed his internship and residency at Massachusetts General Hospital.

He is survived by his wife, Judith; his children, Sean O’Brien Henderson ’82, MD ’89, Maire Henderson Mullaly ’84, Sarah Cathleen Henderson, Brian John Henderson and Michael Clement Henderson; and 11 grandchildren.

In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the “Brian Henderson, M.D., Fellowship Fund” at USC Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center, 1441 Eastlake Ave., Suite 8302, Los Angeles, CA 90089 or online.

by Alicia Di Rado