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Barry Arnason, first Chair of Neurology at UChicago, 1933-2023

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Newswise — Barry Arnason, MD, the founding Chair of the Department of Neurology at the University of Chicago, died on July 17, 2023. He was 89 years old.

Arnason joined the faculty at UChicago in 1976 and led the department until 1996, establishing it as a nationally prominent program for both research and patient care. As a physician-scientist, he is considered to be one of the founders of the field of neuro-immunology, which focuses on understanding how the immune system and the nervous system communicate with each other and maintain the body’s overall health.

Arnason was an author on more than 400 scientific papers on the underlying causes of autoimmunity, neurological diseases, and the development of therapeutic interventions. He was an investigator on more than 70 clinical trials, including studies that led to the approval of interferon-β1b (Betaseron) as the first therapy for relapsing multiple sclerosis (MS). He played a pivotal role in discovering how dysfunctional T cells affect the development of multiple sclerosis, which led him to breakthrough studies that influenced drug management therapies, ultimately affecting how people with MS manage the disease. He also studied what happens—or does not happen—during MS attacks to further advance therapies that may not involve T cells at all. He earned numerous prizes over his long career, including the prestigious John Dystel Prize in MS Research from the American Academic of Neurology and the National MS Society (2014) and election to the American Society of Clinical Investigation in 1974.

Former colleagues and trainees remember Arnason as a polymath who spoke multiple languages, lectured on six different continents, and knew incredible amounts of history and culture in addition to his professional work. He was gifted at making connections and offering insights for colleagues, even outside his field of expertise, and made an indelible impact on their work.

“He read over everyone’s grant proposals and added incredibly insightful comments, no matter what the topic,” said Anthony Reder, MD, Professor of Neurology, who joined the department under Arnason in 1982. “I would be working on a proposal about MS and no one else I talked to could add content; but then I’d talk to Barry and he would double what I had done. He was so good at connecting ideas.”

Arnason was a mentor for scores of clinicians, scientists, residents, and fellows, so numerous that a former trainee of his has presided at the Department of Neurology’s annual Arnason Resident Research Symposium for the past 20 years. Jack Antel, MD, Professor of Neurology and Neurosurgery at McGill University in Montreal, was part of the first cohort of faculty Arnason recruited to UChicago, working with him for 10 years. He called Arnason a true original thinker, equally capable at patient care, clinical research, and basic investigations in animal model systems, who also fostered a collaborative atmosphere in the department.

“If you had something to say, his door was always open,” Antel said. “He treated the faculty like one big family. We were a very cohesive group, like a series of atoms working together as a molecule. He pushed everyone, but he shared his ideas and wanted everyone to do well.”

Born and raised in Canada, Arnason graduated from University of Manitoba Medical School before going to Massachusetts General Hospital in 1958 to complete his neurologic training and a fellowship in the laboratory of Byron Waksman. He served on the faculty at Harvard Medical School until he was recruited to UChicago. Following his tenure as Department Chair, he remained on the faculty until he retired in 2020, and actively continued MS immunology research until his death.

Arnason was predeceased by his beloved wife Joan, who was a pillar of the university and Hyde Park community and actively helped young people. They are survived by their children Stephen, Jon, and Eva.



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