His death was announced by the University of Texas Health Science Center School of Public Health in Houston, where he had been dean from 1987 to 2005.
Beasley made his mark in the 1970s with a series of studies that proved the cancer link and also discovered how Asian children were infected with hepatitis B during childbirth by their mothers who were carriers.
"I decided what we now call hepatitis B looked like the most poorly understood and least-controlled infectious disease problem in the world, and, therefore, the most important frontier," Beasley told the Houston Chronicle in a 2000 interview, adding that, at the time, it was difficult to persuade Chinese officials the disease was worth funding.
Specifically, Beasley and his colleagues found the marker that accurately predicts which infected mothers will transmit the virus to their babies. He also discovered that a shot of human globulin, an antibody-rich precursor to the hepatitis B vaccine, could protect babies against the virus.
"This was a really big breakthrough because it showed for the first time that intervention was possible, " Beasley said in the 2000 interview.
In 1984, a vaccine program was established in Taiwan. In 1992, the World Health Assembly noted that the HBV vaccination, the seventh to be distributed globally, was the only immunization to date that could prevent a major human cancer.
Beasley devoted most of his time to global health research and training. In 2004, he created the Center for International Training and Research to provide a training focus for foreign students seeking graduate-level proficiency related to HIV research with its initial focus on Vietnam. In 2007, he began a program of summer research internships for American students in international settings.
At the time of his death, Beasley was director of the University of Texas School of Public Health's Center for International Training and Research and the Ashbel Smith Professor of Epidemiology. His work on hepatitis B has been recognized with several medical awards, including the King Faisal International Prize for Medicine, the Charles S. Mott Prize and the Maxwell Finland Award for Scientific Achievement.
He was born Robert Palmer Beasley in Glendale on April 29, 1936. He received a bachelor's degree in philosophy from Dartmouth College in 1958 and his medical degree from Harvard University in 1962. He started his research career with the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta in the early 1960s and earned a master's degree in preventive medicine from the University of Washington in 1969. While affiliated with the University of Washington, he did much of his research in Taiwan.
Beasley's survivors include his wife, Dr. Lu-Yu Hwang, who is a professor at the University of Texas Health Science Center's Department of Epidemiology & Disease Control; three children; and his brother, Oakland sculptor Bruce Beasley.