Dr. Baruch Blumberg, who received the 1976 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine for discovering the hepatitis B virus and later developed the vaccine that protects against it, died Tuesday, April 5. Blumberg died after suffering an apparent heart attack after delivering the keynote address at a NASA conference at the agency’s Ames Research Center at Moffett Field in Mountain View, Calif. He was 85.
The isolation of the hepatitis B virus and the development of a vaccine ultimately led to a sharp decline in the incidence of both infections and liver cancer worldwide. Today, Blumberg’s vaccine, which is one of the most widely used in the world, is credited with saving millions of lives.
Ironically, researchers had spend decades searching for the cause of what was then known as “serum hepatitis,” when Blumberg discovered it almost by accident, while researching the widely different responses to infectious agents among different ethnic populations.
Although his 1967 paper reporting his discovery of the virus was rejected by the Annals of Internal Medicine, largely because he was a biochemist, not a virologist, reported Thomas Maugh, II, in the Los Angeles Times: “[Blumberg’s] results were soon replicated by other researchers and the virus was quickly recognized as the cause of the disease. His development of a diagnostic test for the virus in blood soon led to the elimination of the majority of cases of hepatitis transmitted through blood.”
Blumberg began working on a vaccine to combat the virus with his colleague, Dr. Irving Millman of the Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia. The team’s first efforts were ignored by pharmaceutical companies who did not consider a potential vaccine a money maker. In 1976, however, Blumberg and Millman signed an agreement with Merck & Co. to produce the vaccine.
Born on July 28, 1925 in New York City, Baruch Samuel Blumberg dropped out of New York’s Union College in 1943 to enlist in the Navy. He returned to Union after the war to complete his undergraduate degree in physics and enrolled in graduate school in mathematics at Columbia University. At his father’s urging, he soon switched to medicine and he received his medical degree in 1951. He also received a doctoral degree in biochemistry from Oxford University’s Balliol College.
In 1989, after nearly 20 years at Fox Chase in Philadelphia, he was elected Master of Balliol College at the University of Oxford. He returned to the U.S. in 1997 to join the Program on Human Biology at Stanford University. While there, he attended a NASA astrobiology workshop at Ames and became fascinated by the proceedings. NASA’s then-director Dan Goldin subsequently recruited him to become the first head of the agency’s new Astrobiology Institute.
In a personal essay written by Blumberg, he spoke of his early years: “The second of three children of Meyer and Ida Blumberg, my grandparents came to the United States from Europe at the end of the 19th century. They were members of an immigrant group who had enormous confidence in the possibilities of their adopted country. I received my elementary education at the Yeshiva of Flatbush, a Brooklyn Hebrew parochial school, and, at an early age, in addition to a rigorous secular education, learned the Hebrew Testament in the original language. We spent many hours on the rabbinic commentaries on the Bible and were immersed in the existential reasoning of the Talmud at an age when we could hardly have realized its impact.”
Blumberg is survived by his wife of 57 years, the former Jean Liebesman; two sons, two daughters and nine grandchildren.