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Brian Henderson dies at 77; USC cancer expert, medical school dean

Brian E. Henderson, a cancer researcher and former dean of USC's Keck School of Medicine, died earlier this month at his home in San Marino. He was 77.

Henderson died June 20 after a battle with lung cancer, school officials said.

Henderson served as the dean between 2004 and 2007 and worked at USC for nearly 45 years. He was awarded the school's highest honor, the Presidential Medallion, in 1999.

"His many contributions to medicine, research, and our community ... were both far-reaching and extraordinary. He built an exceptional legacy at USC, and in the field of medicine," USC President C.L. Max Nikias said in a statement.

Henderson was born in San Francisco on June 27, 1937 and majored in English when attending UC Berkeley, where he did better in his science classes than his literature courses, said his daughter Maire Henderson Mullaly.

He received his medical degree from the University of Chicago and specialized in infectious diseases, traveling to Africa to study yellow fever and the Soviet Union to conduct research on hemorrhagic fever. He was working at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta when President Richard Nixon declared a war on cancer in 1971 and took a job at USC to study the disease.

The Berkeley alum had trouble adjusting to some aspects of Trojan life. "We had a hard time the first few years when the Bears came to town," said his wife, Judith. "But it would be fair to say that USC won out in the end."

Judith noted that her husband's allegiances only shifted in college football and he remained a die-hard San Francisco Giants fan his entire life.

At USC, Henderson became an authority in investigating rates and patterns of cancer cases to seek factors that might increase the risk for the disease, including studying the role of reproductive hormones in breast cancer.

"We need rational public education of the real issues in cancer," he wrote in a 1998 op-ed piece in The Times.

He was named the dean of USC medical school after then-school President Steven Sample asked him to take on the role. "He would always rather be heading his scientific team, but he wanted the best for the school," his wife said.

After stepping down as dean, Henderson continued his research and teaching. "Mentoring students is something I just love," he said in a USC news story.

Henderson was shocked when he was diagnosed with lung cancer more than a year ago, especially because he knew it would be hard to treat, his daughter said. But he still continued to go to work until a month before his death.

"He enjoyed the science," she said.

In addition to his wife and daughter Maire, Henderson is survived by a younger sister, Marjorie Hitzl; children Sean O'Brien Henderson, Sarah Cathleen Henderson, Brian John Henderson, Michael Clement Henderson; and 11 grandchildren.

jason.song@latimes.com

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