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Studying a Miracle

Professor Rempel's words echo in career of doctor known for pediatric research

In 1952, J. Bruce Beckwith sat listening to a lecture in professor Art Rempel's embryology class.

"The main thing I want you to remember," Rempel said, "is that you are studying a miracle."

"Then I felt a bolt of lightning go through me," explained Beckwith, '54. "I knew I wanted to spend my life studying miracles."

And study the miracle of life he did. Beckwith, a pediatric pathologist who recently retired to Missoula, Montana, is renowned for his work on kidney cancer in children. Dr. Beckwith was the review pathologist for a national study of the disease for 30 years, discovering several new types of tumors as well as features that are important in predicting the response of the tumor to therapy. In part due to these discoveries, the cure rate for Wilms tumor, the most common kidney cancer in children, improved from about 60 percent to more than 90 percent.

Beckwith is also known for his research on Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS), a syndrome he first encountered while working for the coroner's office in Los Angeles during the 1960s.

Dr. Bruce Beckwith
"I found more than three hundred babies per year dying from pneumonia," said Beckwith. "I knew it wasn't pneumonia." In 1969, he named the syndrome and earned international recognition as the primary investigator for the first federally-funded SIDS research program at the University of Washington. Dr. Beckwith and a geneticist from Germany also identified a birth defect syndrome known as the Beckwith-Weidemann Syndrome; 10 percent of those babies diagnosed with the syndrome develop childhood cancers.

"If you fully faced up to the immensity of the tragedy in your hands, you'd go crazy," said Dr. Beckwith. "This kind of work makes one very appreciative of the gift of life."

Professor Art Rempel
"When I was still working with SIDS, and my first grandson was born, I remember seeing him in his crib at two or three months old. I couldn't watch him sleep," said Beckwith. But he need not have worried — his grandson, Tristan Peter-Contesse, has grown up strong and healthy and recently entered Whitman as a member of the class of 2004. Dr. Beckwith is especially pleased that Peter-Contesse chose to attend his grandfather's alma mater.

"My education at Whitman was the beginning of my life in many ways," said Beckwith. "I walked onto the campus and something felt right."

Peter-Contesse is currently living in Lyman, the same residence hall Beckwith lived in as a Whitman student. Peter-Contesse is not planning to major in biology like his grandfather (maybe environmental studies instead), but the two still share many of the same values and hobbies, including fly fishing.

"He is my favorite fishing buddy," said Peter-Contesse, "and as I get to know him more and more, I see that we are very similar people with matching values and goals. He has taught me to respect and appreciate the natural world, to have a passion and to follow it, and to always be honest."

Tristan Peter-Contesse, '04, lives in Lyman House, the same residence hall where his grandfather — and Montana fishing buddy —Bruce Beckwith, '52, lived.
Peter-Contesse is not alone in his appreciation for his grandfather. Beckwith was awarded professorships at a number of universities including the University of Washington, the University of Colorado, and Loma Linda University in California. In 1998, he and his wife, Nancy, visited England where he was named honorary fellow of the Royal College of Pathologists, which is its highest distinction.

Beckwith was also selected to receive the Astute Clinician Award from the U.S. National Institutes of Health. This annual award was developed to recognize a person who has made clinical observations leading to significant advances in basic science research. Beckwith still credits Professor Rempel and Whitman for much of his success, a fact that has not escaped his grandson.

"I feel that experiences at Whitman pointed my grand-father towards the work where he would find the most meaning and where he would be able to most benefit humanity," said Peter-Contesse. "I imagine that my education here will do the same for me."

Whitman Magazine