Brigham and Women’s Hospital mourns the loss of K. Frank Austen, MD, founding chief of the Division of Rheumatology, Immunology and Allergy at BWH and the AstraZeneca Professor of Respiratory and Inflammatory Diseases, Emeritus, at Harvard Medical School. Dr. Austen died on June 23 at the age of 95.
A member of the Brigham community for more than 60 years until his retirement in 2022, Dr. Austen was physician-in-chief and chair of the Department of Medicine at the Robert B. Brigham (RBBH) Hospital, one of the three Harvard institutions that merged to form BWH in 1980. After the merger, he became chair of what was then the Department of Rheumatology at BWH until his appointment as chief of the newly formed Inflammation and Allergic Disease section within the Department of Medicine in 1994. Joshua A. Boyce, MD, succeeded him as section chief in 2011.
“Frank was instrumental in the creation of Brigham and Women’s Hospital and was a giant of an administrator, a scientist and a mentor,” said Boyce, who now serves as chief of the Division of Allergy and Clinical Immunology. “I think it is a fair thing to say that the Brigham as we know it would not have existed without Frank’s efforts as an industry leader and team builder.”
Publishing more than 700 original papers over seven decades, Dr. Austen was known for his rigor for data. His major contributions to the field of immunology include unraveling the complement cascade, being one of the original discoverers of slow-reacting substance of anaphylaxis (SRS-A), discovering how leukotrienes drive inflammation and furthering the understanding of the molecular and cellular biology of mast cells.
“I would not be exaggerating to say that Frank is one of a small handful of fathers of the entire field of immunology,” said Boyce. “He started in an era where the tools available to understand the immune system and its role in human disease were very rudimentary, and he pioneered work that led to important advances not only in our understanding of autoimmune and allergic diseases, but also in developing treatments for those diseases.”
In a 2012 oral history recording for The American Association of Immunologists, of which he was president from 1977 to 1978, Dr. Austen spoke about how being diagnosed and treated for severe paralytic polio in 1946 inspired his career path, his first publications in The New England Journal of Medicine on vascular collapse in polio and a lifelong passion for science.
“This polio business is a remarkable thread in my life,” Dr. Austen said at the time. “It’s what caused me to think seriously about medicine and become a quality student instead of a haphazard student. It allowed me to make the observations that ended up with my assignment to Walter Reed and to the introduction of immunology and it just profoundly influenced a lot of things in my life that turned out to be really good fortune.”
As a mentor, Dr. Austen trained more than 200 full professors at U.S. medical schools or equivalent institutions in Europe, four chairs of medicine, the three leaders of the largest asthma research programs in the U.K. and four presidents of the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology.
“Frank probably trained more leaders in our specialties of rheumatology and allergy than anybody ever,” said Boyce. “He had a remarkable track record of training people who succeeded in the field, and, of course, those people all spawn their own mentoring tree — so, in many ways, this is an exponential mentoring legacy.”
Though his mentoring style evolved over time, Dr. Austen always found a way to instill confidence in his trainees so they could accomplish more than they ever thought possible.
“The first time I did an experiment that Dr. Austen had expressly told me not to move forward with, I received an unexpectedly good result,” recalled allergist Lora Bankova, MD, one of Dr. Austen’s last trainees at the Brigham. “He appreciated that I followed my scientific instinct and that I didn’t blindly follow what I was told to do. I will never forget his look of respect and shared mischief. His joy that I had broken free was genuine.”
Dr. Austen documented his advice in “Mentoring: An art and a responsibility” in the 2018 Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, noting the importance of work-life balance: “Although research requires special dedication, foregoing life outside the laboratory can be counterproductive,” he wrote. “Family responsibilities provide stability and lots of joy, especially when one’s research is disappointing or tedious.”
Reflecting on his mentor’s passing, Boyce said it felt like losing a parent.
“During the 32 years I worked with Frank, it become more than just a mentor-mentee relationship,” he said. “He had a way of connecting with people, and, at the end of the day, he really had my back.”
Born and raised in Akron, Ohio, Dr. Austen earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Amherst College and a medical degree from Harvard Medical School. He completed his internal medicine residency at MGH, where he was chief resident.
Dr. Austen is survived by his wife of 64 years, Joycelyn; four children; eight grandchildren; three great-grandchildren; and many more family members and loved ones.