Dr. K. Frank Austen of Wellesley, MA, and Damariscotta, ME, a noted physician-scientist in immunology/allergy and rheumatology for six decades at Harvard Medical School (HMS), died at his home in Maine on June 23, 2023, at the age of 95. His many contributions to medicine were recognized by his election to the National Academy of Medicine and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and by his induction into the Royal Society (UK) as a foreign member. Dr. Austen served as president of three societies, the American Association of Immunologists, the American Academy of Allergy, and the American Association of Physicians. He received numerous awards, including the Gairdner Foundation Award (Canada), the Waterford Prize shared with Bengt Samuelsson, the Warren Alpert Foundation Prize from HMS, and the Kober Medal of the Association of American Physicians. He received honorary degrees from l’Universite Pierre et Marie Curie in Paris, Hofstra Medical School, and Amherst College. He was honored with the creation of an endowed K. Frank Austen Professorship by Harvard University and Medical School and the K. Frank Austen Visiting Professorship at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. Dr. Austen served three terms as a trustee for Amherst College and continued to serve for another 18 years as a Life Trustee.
Dr. Austen was born and raised in Akron, Ohio. After completing high school at Western Reserve Academy in Hudson, Ohio, he enrolled at Amherst College. While working that intervening summer at a camp on Lake Erie, he contracted poliomyelitis and spent several months in the Akron Children’s Hospital. By attending the University of Akron in spring and summer, he was able to enter Amherst College as a sophomore in the fall. He graduated Phi Beta Kappa and magna cum laude in Chemistry and was accepted into Harvard Medical School, class of 1954. He was elected to AOA (the academic honor society), graduated with honors, and was accepted for residency training in internal medicine at the Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH). During his second year of clinical training, there was a major poliomyelitis epidemic. Patients filled the Haynes Memorial Hospital for Infectious Diseases and Boston City Hospital, and the MGH elected to meet the need for a third Boston hospital. Dr. Austen was among a small group of house officers who took responsibility for patients needing an ‘iron lung’, which used negative pressure to suck air into the lungs of patients with paralyzed breathing muscles. He recognized that patients with inadequate oxygenation who could not sustain their blood pressure had areas of collapse in the lung, and he shifted these patients to positive pressure devices that blew air into the lung. These observations, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, provided understanding of the problem and changed patient management.
Dr. Austen entered into his obligated military service as a Captain in the US Army in 1956 and on completion of basic training was sent to the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, DC. During this time, he participated as one of the physicians rendering care to Mamie Eisenhower. Simultaneously, he was appointed to the Walter Reed Institute of Research to work with Dr. Elmer Becker in the area of immunology. Fascinated by the science, he arranged for a postdoctoral fellowship at the National Institute for Medical Research in England to follow a third year at the MGH as a senior medical resident. During that year, he married Joycelyn Chapman, who was teaching nursing, and they departed for England and 18 wonderful months living in Mill Hill outside London with summers for travel in Europe.
A fourth year of training as Chief Medical Resident at the MGH began in January 1961 and led to his appointment as Instructor in Medicine at HMS. He pursued additional training for 6 months in the Department of Microbiology at Johns Hopkins Medical School while his laboratory at the MGH was being completed. In 1964 Dr. Austen was appointed as Chief of the Pulmonary Unit in Medicine at the MGH. Two years later, he was appointed Physician-in-Chief of the Robert B. Brigham (RBBH) Hospital, Associate Professor of Medicine at HMS, and Chairman of the RBBH Department of Medicine. He became Professor of Medicine at HMS in 1969 and the Theodore Bevier Bayles Professor of Medicine in 1972. He remained as department chairman and served as chair of the Academic Planning Committee in the merger of the RBBH, Boston Hospital for Women, and the Peter B. Brigham Hospital into a single entity, Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH). The RBBH department became the Division of Rheumatology, Immunology and Allergy at BWH, while remaining a separate Department of Medicine at HMS. Dr. Austen completed his three-decade role of Chairperson of the Division and became Director of the Inflammation and Allergic Disease Section to focus on the field of allergy. In 2001 he became the Astra Zeneca Professor of Respiratory and Inflammatory Diseases at HMS.
Dr. Austen could see ‘holes’ in what were considered obvious answers to basic and even clinical conundrums. He most enjoyed his role as a mentor in postdoctoral education of physicians who had completed their residency and sought to understand the immune system and the complexity of the illnesses for which it was a key mechanism. He challenged them with difficult questions, supported them with confidence in their ability to unravel the unknown, and insisted that discoveries followed the unexpected rather than anticipated result of an experiment. More than 200 of his trainees achieved the rank of professor at universities or institutes.
He was blessed with his marriage of more than 64 years to Joycelyn, who guided all aspects of their family life. She allowed him his passion for discovery, shared his aversion to workplace politics in any setting, and expanded their life through her numerous friends in Wellesley, Massachusetts, or Damariscotta, Maine. Their focus on family required an unmatched location, the coast of Maine, for gatherings at least twice a year, since their children established their own careers and families outside of New England. They hiked, golfed, skied, and boated with whoever could keep up and shared an array of board games in the evenings.
In addition to his wife, Dr. Austen is survived by four children and their spouses, Leslie Parsons (Bill), Karla Austen (Pam), Timothy Austen (Marcie), and Jonathan Austen (Katherine); eight grandchildren and spouses, Matthew (Karyn), David (Caroline), Thomas (Kate), Anna and Elizabeth Parsons, and Daniel, Caleb and Eliza Austen; and three great grandchildren, Isabelle and Charlie Parsons (Matt &Karyn) and Louise Mendez-Parsons (Tom &Kate). He is also survived by his beloved labradoodle, Piper.
The family would like to express their gratitude to all the thoughtful and wonderful caregivers who tended to Dr. Austen during the past year.
Funeral services will be private. In lieu of flowers, contributions may be made to one of the following: Joycelyn C. Austen Fund for Career Development of Women Physician Scientists in Allergy and Immunology, Brigham and Women's Hospital, Division of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, Office 5002-U, 60 Fenwood Road, Boston, MA 02115; the Joycelyn C. and K. Frank Austen 1950 Student Science Research Fund, Amherst College, P.O. Box 2238, Amherst, MA 01002; or Coastal River Conservation Trust, P.O. Box 333, Damariscotta, ME 04543.
Arrangements are under the direction and care of the Strong-Hancock Funeral Home, 612 Main Street, Damariscotta, ME 04543. Condolences, and messages for his family, may be expressed by visiting: www.StrongHancock.com.