This Day in Jewish History / Birth of Researcher Who Discovered Hepatitis B Vaccine

Baruch Blumberg discovered how infection spreads, was awarded Nobel Prize in 1976 for his labors.

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July 28, 1925, is the birthdate of Baruch Blumberg, the medical researcher who shared the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1976, for having discovered how infectious hepatitis B spreads, and who developed a vaccine against the disease.

Baruch Samuel Blumberg was born in Brooklyn, New York, the second of three children of Meyer Blumberg, a lawyer, and the former Ida Simonoff. Both Meyer and Ida were first-generation Americans, whose parents had immigrated to the United States from the Russian empire toward the end of the 19th century. For primary school, he attended Yeshiva of Flatbush, the modern-Orthodox Jewish day school where much of the day’s studies are conducted in Hebrew. For secondary school he went first to James Madison High School, and later to Far Rockaway, from which he graduated in 1943.

Blumberg joined the U.S. Navy during World War II, and served as a deck officer on landing ships, and also began college at Union College, in Schenectady, New York. In 1946, he both finished active duty and graduated from Union, with a degree in physics.

He began graduate school in mathematics at Columbia University, but soon switched to medical school there, finishing in 1951. Between their third and fourth years of med school, Blumberg and classmates spent a summer in a remote mining town in Suriname doing both clinical work and research. He became fascinated by the mix of different ethnic groups that had immigrated there, and the inherited differences that seemed to distinguish how each group responded to various infectious agents.

After completing his PhD in biochemistry at Balliol College, Oxford, Blumberg continued to travel widely, as he pursued the question of how immunity is developed. His breakthrough came when he identified a nonlethal antigen present in certain human groups (he discovered it among Australian aborigines) that enables them to produce antibodies to fight hepatitis B without having to become sick with the disease, which is a major cause of liver cancer. This led to the development of both a screening test for the virus (which was frequently spread via blood transfusions) and a vaccine to inoculate people against it. Blumberg let drug companies have the patent at no cost so they could distribute it globally.

For that work, he won the 1976 Nobel Prize, which he shared with D. Carleton Gajdusek, who did similar work with kuru, a neurological disease once prevalent in New Guinea.

Blumberg’s career was distinguished by the wide range of interests he possessed and hats he wore. From 1964 until the end of his life, he held important research positions at Philadelphia’s Fox Chase Cancer Center, and from 1977, he was a university professor at the University of Pennsylvania. In the years 1989-94, Blumberg served as master of Balliol College, the first American and first nonscientist (since a 14th-century alchemist) to hold the position. Blumberg was also the founding director of the NASA Astrobiology Institute, in 1999, whose goal is to contribute to the search for life beyond Earth by studying “extremophiles” – creatures that have adopted to life under extreme conditions on this planet. He also became a member of SETI (the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence), and headed the American Philosophical Society, America’s oldest scholarly society.

Baruch Blumberg was married to Jean Liebesman, an artist, from 1954 until his death; they had two sons and two daughters, one of whom, Jane, is married to Mark Thompson, former director general of the BBC and currently CEO of The New York Times.

Blumberg died of a heart attack on April 5, 2011, at age 85.

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