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Monday, April 25, 2011
Remembering Baruch "Barry" Blumberg, By Robert C. Young
Baruch S. Blumberg, MD, PhD
1925-2011
 
BY ROBERT C. YOUNG, MD
 

Baruch Blumberg died at the age of 85 of an apparent heart attack on April 5 just after completing his presentation at a meeting of the NASA Ames Research Center in California.

 

In the 1960s, Barry, a man of extraordinary talents, became intrigued with variations in individual susceptibility to disease and traveled the globe collecting blood specimens to sort out these individual variations. He was not a virologist in search of the hepatitis virus. The identification of an unusual protein in some of the specimens particularly in populations with hepatitis B coupled with the development of hepatitis in one of his laboratory workers brought about the a-ha moment and was followed rapidly by the identification of the outer coat of the Hepatitis B virus in 1967.

 

Barry and his colleagues went on to develop a screening test for blood products, develop a vaccine, and ultimately culture the virus—the work for which Barry was awarded the 1976 Nobel Prize in Medicine.

 

A member of the Fox Chase Cancer Center staff since 1964, Barry was appointed Senior Advisor to the President when he returned from a stint as Master of Balliol College at Oxford where he had received his doctorate in Chemistry in 1957.

 

Always insightful, Barry had been initially quite enthusiastic about the faculty Senate at Balliol where all of the Professors took part in the decisions of the College. After two years, during a home visit, he expressed his dissatisfaction with the system, saying it was perfectly democratic but nothing could ever be resolved and as a result no action could be taken.

 

Barry was a man of action: a cyclist, mountain climber, kayaker, cattle rancher, and a man constantly in motion. Even into his 80s, he moved continuously throughout the Fox Chase Cancer Center discussing science with staff, constructively critiquing young investigators’ experiments, and always championing the importance of scientific serendipity.

 

Barry became intrigued with the population effect of Hepatitis B vaccination in countries where the disease was endemic. He and others began to note the decline in hepatic cancer 10 to 15 years after widespread vaccination programs in several countries including Taiwan and concluded that this vaccination strategy employed the first vaccine capable of preventing a human cancer.

 

Subsequent vaccination programs in multiple countries have shown an 80% decrease in liver cancer in vaccinated populations preventing millions of cases of acute and chronic hepatitis and hundreds of thousands of cases of primary liver cancer.

 

In 1999 Barry was approached by NASA to become Senior Advisor for Biology to the Administrator of NASA and Director of the Astrobiology Institute, where he initiated studies to identify scientific evidence of life on other parts of our solar system. He served in this capacity from 1999 to 2002 and thereafter became a Distinguished Scientist at the NASA Lunar Science Institute. He died after giving the keynote speech at an International Lunar Research Park Exploratory Workshop.

 

Since 2005 he served as the President of the American Philosophical Society, founded in 1743 by Benjamin Franklin, who served as its first President. The American Philosophical Society counts amongst its members many of the world’s most distinguished scientists, philosophers, and leaders and is a scholarly organization that promotes knowledge in the sciences and humanities through scholarly research, professional meetings, publications, and a library and historical resources.

 

The impact of Barry’s work in so many areas of science is immeasurable. Some years ago, we at Fox Chase did a little calculation on the economic impact of his single contribution of the vaccine for Hepatitis B. The economic savings of this single discovery far exceeded all of the funds thus far granted to Fox Chase and its investigators and will far exceed all of the grants and funding that the Center will ever receive. That’s just a small example of the impact that Barry’s science has made on medicine and on worldwide public health.

 

On a personal level Barry was a great friend who spent many hours with me giving sound advice and council. He was a passionate defender and advocate of unfettered scientific exploration, and his life’s contributions are proof positive of the soundness of that frequently misunderstood concept.

 

We will not likely see his like again soon. The world has lost a great scientific leader and contributor.

 

 

 

The former Chancellor and President of Fox Chase Cancer Center, ROBERT C. YOUNG, MD, is OT Editorial Board Chair and President of RCY Medicine.