Dr. Barry Arnason established the University of Chicago’s department of neurology and also was an expert in the field of immunology.
Arnason worked to bring the two fields together, and one area where he had great impact was in the treatment of multiple sclerosis. He played a role in clinical trials to develop a drug that works as therapy for relapses of MS, and he also helped discover how certain cells affect the development of MS, which ultimately had a positive impact on how MS patients manage the disease.
“He was amongst the leaders of those who moved neurology into the modern era, namely using all emerging technologies to understand the mechanisms underlying disease development,” said McGill University neurology and neurosurgery professor Jack Antel, who previously worked with Arnason at the U. of C.
“His focus was on multiple sclerosis but he was very open to expanding insights to an array of disorders as he initiated the department of neurology at U. of C. Of importance, he kept his focus on how research could be translated into the treatment of patients with neurologic disease, and conversely how to bring questions from the clinic to the research lab.”
Arnason, 89, died of natural causes on July 17 at a family home in Gloucester, Massachusetts, said his son Stephen. Arnason, a longtime resident of the South Side Kenwood neighborhood, had been in declining health since suffering a stroke in August 2022, his son said.
Born in Manitoba, Arnason grew up in Winnipeg. An immunologist by training, Arnason graduated from the University of Manitoba Faculty of Medicine — now the University of Manitoba College of Medicine — in 1958. He then spent several years in training at Massachusetts General Hospital before leaving the U.S. to work in France.
In 1964, he took a job on the faculty of Harvard Medical School. In 1976, the University of Chicago recruited him to come to Chicago to establish a department of neurology.
“The university had no stand-alone department, and they built a building and were looking for somebody to lead the new department,” Stephen Arnason said. “It was a unique opportunity.”
In addition to his research, Arnason saw patients at the U. of C, while also serving as the department’s medical director and overseeing its finances, U. of C. neurology professor Anthony Reder said.
“We had an incredible department of people mainly centered around researching MS and autoimmune brain diseases and it was like an intellectual and research powerhouse, but people might forget that they were very good clinically too — it wasn’t purely research,” said Reder, who joined the faculty in 1982.
Arnason authored or co-authored more than 400 scientific papers on the underlying causes of autoimmunity, neurological diseases and the development of therapeutic interventions. He also assisted in conducting more than 70 clinical trials.
Among the foremost trials that Arnason and his colleagues worked on were the studies that led to the FDA’s 1993 approval of the drug known as interferon beta, or Betaseron, which is an immunosuppressive drug able to reduce flare-ups of multiple sclerosis.
“We think this is the most significant development in the history of the disease,” Arnason told the Tribune in 1993. “What is the most gratifying to me is that it presents the possibility to MS patients of hope and a better quality of life.”
Arnason later found in an exploratory study that interferon beta also could help counteract the subtle yet bothersome memory loss that people with multiple sclerosis battle. While memory loss isn’t widely associated with MS, Arnason told the Tribune’s Ronald Kotulak and Jon Van in 1997 that “if you ask MS patients and their spouses, they will tell you that memory loss is a problem.”
David Brodovsky, a classmate from the University of Manitoba, recalled class reunions at which Arnason would share his work with his classmates.
“Some of us presented semi-scientific papers at our reunions. It was very obvious then that Barry had become an outstanding clinician and researcher,” Brodovsky said. “His presentations, which were to a very mixed audience of family doctors and various medical and surgical specialists, were lucid, scientific and with a touch of his wry humor which had certainly been present even when we were students. Even I, as an otolaryngologist, could understand them.”
Reder said Arnason “was able to read over grant proposals in obscure areas that he wasn’t an expert in and make comments that would blow people away.”
“People would say, ‘How does he know this?’” Reder recalled.
Arnason retired from seeing patients in 2020, but he continued performing research until his death, his son said.
Arnason’s wife of 61 years, Joan, died in 2022. Survivors also include another son, Jon; a daughter, Eva; and four grandchildren.
A private family service was being planned for late August, and a larger memorial service is being planned for Chicago for next year.
Goldsborough is a freelance reporter.
To purchase a death notice, visit https://placeanad.chicagotribune.com/death-notices. To suggest a staff-written obituary on a person of local interest, email firstname.lastname@example.org.