Baruch Blumberg, Nobel winner with ties to Fox Chase, dies at 85

Dr. Baruch Blumberg and wife Jean rejoice in his award in 1976.
Dr. Baruch Blumberg and wife Jean rejoice in his award in 1976.
Posted: April 07, 2011

Baruch Blumberg, 85, a Philadelphia researcher who won the Nobel Prize in medicine in 1976 for his work on hepatitis B, died Tuesday in Moffett Field, Calif.

He collapsed after giving a speech at the International Lunar Research Park Exploratory Workshop being held at the NASA Ames Research Center, said his daughter Anne Blumberg. Her father, who was the director of the NASA Astrobiology Institute from 1999 to 2002, had been in good health and died of an apparent heart attack, according to NASA. "He was as busy last week as he was his whole life," his daughter said.

Dr. Blumberg, who had worked at Fox Chase Cancer Center since 1964 and still maintained an office there, discovered the hepatitis B virus and later helped develop a vaccine against it. The vaccine, which is now made in a different way, was approved by the FDA in 1981. Dr. Blumberg's work also allowed blood banks to screen for hepatitis B, a blood-borne virus. It can cause serious liver disease, liver cancer, and death.

"His vaccine and his research have saved hundreds of thousands of lives," said Ann Skalka, basic science director emerita at Fox Chase in Northeast Philadelphia.

Friends and family described him as an unusually curious, outgoing, funny, affable, and adventurous man who traveled widely and loved walking in his beloved Philadelphia. He had given up active research in recent years but still had the title of senior adviser to the president and CEO at Fox Chase and university professor at the University of Pennsylvania. At NASA, he had focused his formidable intellect on studying the possibility of life in space.

Dr. Blumberg, who was known as Barry, was also the current president of the American Philosophical Society, a Philadelphia-based learned society founded by Benjamin Franklin.

Dr. Blumberg traveled the world for his research and was particularly interested in Lewis and Clark's journals, which were part of the society's collection. He started a Lewis and Clark grant program to help young scholars do field research, Annie Westcott, director of meetings for the group, said.

'Huge influence'

Skalka, who had worked with Dr. Blumberg since 1987 and considered him a friend, said he remained a staunch advocate for basic science. He believed practical applications would flow from understanding basic biology. He thought research would reveal an increasingly important role for viruses in the development of some cancers.

He was also fun, Skalka said. He recently traveled to New York with a group from Fox Chase to cheer on a colleague who had won an award.

"He was just a wonderful, happy person," she said. "He was always looking for new adventure, both intellectually and in his personal life. . . . He's had a huge influence on all the faculty here, and it will leave a big hole in our community, and we mourn him."

He was a vigorous exerciser who took up running long before that was fashionable. He loved mountain biking and kayaking. "He was I guess in his 70s when he started rock climbing," Anne Blumberg said. He was still able to climb Bald Mountain in Maine last summer.

Westcott said a walk with Barry Blumberg was always an education. "It was like going to the best documentary or lecture that you've ever had in your whole life," she said. "He knew everything about everything."

Crediting others

Dr. Blumberg shared the Nobel with D. Carteron Gajdusek of the National Institute of Neurological Diseases at Bethesda, Md. After he was announced as a Nobel winner, Dr. Blumberg joked that it "makes up in part for the Phillies not making it to the World Series."

At a news conference after winning the prize, though, he was subdued and passed credit for the discovery to his colleagues. "I could not have done it without them," he said. And when he went to Stockholm, Sweden, to receive the honor, 17 of his colleagues went along.

His original interest was in discovering why people of different ethnic backgrounds respond differently to diseases. The research that ended with his hepatitis breakthrough took him from isolated populations along the Amazon in Brazil to remote islands in the Philippines to leper colonies in India.

He collected blood samples from tens of thousands of people in 40 countries. He even took samples from seals and cattle and scrutinized traces of blood from Egyptian mummies at the University of Pennsylvania.

While studying blood from Australian aborigines as a National Institutes of Health employee in 1963, he found an antigen - a substance that triggers an immune-system response - that eventually proved to be part of the hepatitis B virus and a key to the vaccine. He called it the Australia antigen.

Dr. Blumberg, who was a doctor and had a doctorate in biochemistry from Oxford University, was not a virologist. Jonathan Chernoff, scientific director at Fox Chase, said Dr. Blumberg told him he was reading virology textbooks while he was trying to figure out what the antigen meant.

"He was really a great believer in the power of serendipity," Chernoff said.

Harvey Friedman, chief of infectious diseases at Penn, said he read Dr. Blumberg's work on hepatitis B while a medical student. "I read that paper, and I said, 'Boy this is really cool.' The future is in virology." Dr. Blumberg's work was a key factor, he said, in his decision to study infectious diseases.

When Dr. Blumberg received the Nobel, he was still trying to prove there was a link between the virus and liver cancer, a link that is now clear.

Dr. Blumberg took a break from Fox Chase from 1989 to 1994 to be master of Oxford's Balliol College, a rare honor for an American.

A native of New York, he attended a public high school in Queens and met his wife, Jean, at Bellevue Hospital in Manhattan while he was an intern and she was a biologist and lab technician. They married in 1954, and she later became a painter. They moved to Society Hill in the early 1960s.

They had four children: Anne, Jane, George, and Noah. Dr. Blumberg had nine grandchildren.

Noah Blumberg said his father loved walking in his neighborhood and taking pictures. "He absolutely adored Philadelphia," he said.

Joseph Levine & Sons funeral home said service arrangements were pending.


Contact staff writer Stacey Burling at 215-854-4944 or sburling@phillynews.com.

 

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