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Division of Pulmonary, Allergy and Critical Care Medicine

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Ben Vaughan Branscomb, M.D.,
University of Alabama at Birmingham professor and pioneer of pulmonary medicine, passed away July 4, 2016.

Born in Durham, N.C., in 1924, Branscomb entered Duke Medical School at 17 due to the need for medical practitioners during World War II. After his residency training, he was recruited to the Medical College of Alabama by Dr. Tinsley Harrison in 1955 and joined the faculty of what would become UAB. While at UAB, Branscomb founded UAB Division of Pulmonary, Allergy and Critical Care Medicine, acting as division chair for 15 years.

Branscomb pioneered pulmonary function research as the first National Institutes of Health pulmonary physician. Branscomb’s NIH work illuminated fundamental breathing aspects, leading him to publish the first descriptions of the flow volume loop, an integral part of modern pulmonary medicine. His research also established substantive links between lung disease, smoking and air pollution.

A 1962 American Lung Association grant allowed Branscomb to mount a flow volume loop machine of his own design in a specially equipped bus to provide mobile testing and increased awareness of newly recognized pulmonary diseases like emphysema and COPD. He tested over 200 members of the 88th United States Congress on the Capitol steps in July 1963. National media coverage of the event challenged the safety claims of tobacco companies and highlighted the impact of emphysema.

Branscomb’s treatment of nonsmoking patients with breathing problems made him an advocate for clean air. He was the first physician on the state’s inaugural Air Pollution Control Board, and led efforts to establish governmental enforcement of the Clean Air Act in Alabama. He was also a founding member of the Greater Birmingham Alliance to Stop Pollution (GASP), an air-quality activist group. 

Branscomb was one of the first UAB researchers to be appointed to an endowed chair, assuming what is now known as the Ben Vaughan Branscomb Chair of Medicine in Respiratory Disease. He was the clinical director of the Spain Rehabilitation Center until 1977 and medical director of the Spain Respiratory Care Unit until 1989, when he retired from clinical practice. He continued teaching until 2006.

“Ben Branscomb is widely recognized as one of the founding fathers of modern pulmonary medicine. He was an innovative leader who contributed not only to building one of the top pulmonary divisions in the country, but to improving the health of all citizens by championing the Clean Air Act of 1970,” said Victor Thannickal, M.D., the UAB Division of Pulmonary, Allergy and Critical Care Medicine director.

“Dr. Branscomb was one of the first pulmonologists to widely utilize spirometric testing to screen for emphysema and chronic lung disease. His clinical acumen and his teaching of medical students, residents and fellows are legendary,” Dr. Thannickal continued. “He took time from his busy schedule to educate local schools in Birmingham and the public at large of the hazards of cigarette smoke and environmental pollution. He was a friend and enduring supporter of our division, the Department of Medicine and UAB. He will be dearly missed.”