Leon Barnes was a leader in head and neck pathology

A quick conversation with his family revealed two sides to renowned head and neck pathologist E. Leon Barnes Jr., who retired from Pitt in 2010 as a professor of pathology emeritus and died at 81 on Feb. 24, 2023.

Jonas T. Johnson, professor of otolaryngology, talked to Barnes’ widow and their two daughters a few days after his death and learned that he was the consummate family man who doted on his wife, kids and grandchildren.

But Barnes, despite being regarded as a leader in head and neck pathology, left his science at the lab. “Apparently,” Johnson says, “he did not talk too much about work at home.”

After earning his MD at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences in 1966, Barnes came to the Pitt School of Medicine for a residency in anatomic and clinical pathology. He sidestepped after being drafted into the Army but completed his residency in 1972. He became an assistant professor of pathology, and except for one year in private practice, remained at Pitt Med until his retirement in 2010 as a professor of pathology emeritus.

The University established an endowed chair in the Department of Pathology in his name.

Barnes wrote seven pathology textbooks and more than 200 peer-review manuscripts. He received the Distinguished Alumni Award from the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences in 1995 and was awarded the European Society of Pathology Honorary Diploma. In 2012, he received the Fred Waldorf Stewart Award from Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center Department of Pathology.

“Leon was one of only two or three in the world who helped define head and neck pathology,” Johnson says.

George K. Michalopoulos, chair of the Department of Pathology, says Barnes’ classifications of head and neck tumors are standards in the field and can be directly linked to therapies for those cancers.

“The whole field of pathology, from here to Alaska to Australia, relating to what are the classifications of head and neck cancers and how the therapies work” stems from Barnes’ research, Michalopoulos says.

Robert Ferris, the Hillman professor of oncology and director of UPMC Hillman Cancer Center, says of Barnes’ contributions: “Leon defined the concept of biomarkers before we really even knew what those were, and how important they could be for patient selection to optimize outcomes and guide treatment intensity. Many of the pathologic features of risk that he identified in the 1980s have been validated and are now integrated into the American Joint Committee on Cancer staging system across the world for head and neck cancer.”

Michael Aubele