Brian MacMahon died on 5 December 2007, in his 85th year. He will be remembered for 2 key contributions beyond his long list of publications: first for his role in redefining the field of epidemiology, and second for his leadership of the Epidemiology Department at Harvard University from 1958 until his retirement in 1989.
Brian entered epidemiology at a time when a number of thoughtful investigators were beginning to study cancer, heart disease, birth defects, and chronic lung disease as phenomena of populations. He did not invent the population approach but he systematized it, laying down fundamental concepts for population-based measurements. Epidemiology had been a discipline focused on host, agent, vector, and environment—a framework that had been successfully applied to the infectious scourges of humankind. Brian emphasized the framework of person, place, and time and applied it to noninfectious disease. As primary author of Epidemiologic Methods in 1960, he made these concepts accessible and familiar to those in public health and clinical medicine. This historic textbook redefined epidemiologic concepts in a way that showed their applicability to chronic diseases, and reinforced the role of epidemiology as the basic science of public health and preventive medicine.
During his more than 30 years as the Chair of Epidemiology at Harvard, he fostered the training of many graduate students, producing generations of researchers and teachers and contributing to the astounding growth of epidemiologic activity in the late 20th century. Never aloof, he attended free-wheeling lunches with faculty and students, trading stories and insights, treating his juniors as the friends that they inevitably became. He was gentle but forthright. His honesty did not always blend well with academic politics, but his integrity, humanity, and sparkling good humor endeared him to his close colleagues, who were fiercely devoted to the man and to his enthusiasm for work and life. His work was infused with creativity, without ever compromising his tough standards for quality. He set the tone of the department with his dedication to the value of brevity and clarity of language, and a reliance on quantification, objectivity, and accuracy.
Brian was a central figure in epidemiology for half a century. He inspired others through his elegant writing, his flair for teaching, and most of all by his example. His passionate devotion to epidemiology continued in retirement; he had 5 first-authored or single-authored publications since 2005. Devoted to family, fond of music and literature, a keen student of human nature, he will be long remembered as a consummate epidemiologist.