The scientific world lost a giant with the death of Baruch S. Blumberg in April 2011. Winner of the Nobel prize for his identification of the hepatitis B virus, “Barry,” as he was known, remained engaged in his work and full of ideas for the next breakthrough until his death at 85. Fox Chase researcher W. Thomas London reflects on nearly a half-century of friendship and collaboration with a man for whom the world was a laboratory.
—W. Thomas London
I met Barry Blumberg in July 1962 at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. Having recently completed a fellowship in endocrinology at Memorial-Sloan Kettering Institute, I had enlisted in the U.S. Public Health Service and been assigned to the Epidemiology and Biometry Branch of the National Institute of Arthritis and Metabolic Disease. Barry headed a section of the branch he’d created, Geographic Medicine and Disease. At just 36, he already had authored or co-authored about 50 papers.
Scientifically, Barry was a throwback to the naturalists of the 19th century, like Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace. He was an acute observer of nature, and a collector. He was full of stories about his travels, which I found endlessly entertaining. He loved to tell one about a visit to Nigeria: After dinner, the guests would adjourn to the wall of the dining room to examine and discuss the insects and reptiles that had gathered there. Barry and I became colleagues and close friends and would remain so for the next 49 years.Barry had chosen this hidden corner of the NIAMD because he thought it would allow him to pursue his own ideas and go where he pleased. He had begun what would become a lifelong practice of traveling, collecting blood samples wherever he went, and making observations about the people from whom they were drawn.
“He was a participator,
not a spectator.”
Barry was interested in genetic polymorphisms in human blood—inherited variants of proteins or blood types that he believed were associated with disease. As a believer in natural selection, he thought such variants must be important, or they would not have persisted.
In 1964, Timothy Talbot, the prescient director of the Institute for Cancer Research (which would become part of Fox Chase), recruited Barry to head a new division of clinical research, promising he could do what he wanted as long as his research had an impact on human disease. Barry accepted and began assembling a team. He asked me to join him, but I had never heard of the place and held out until 1966, when Barry finally convinced me the ICR was a scientific gem bound to gain national, even international, importance. His prediction would prove correct—and the ICR turned out to be a friendly, supportive institution to boot. I never regretted my decision.
Barry and I often walked at lunchtime in Lorimer Park near the institute and talked about what was new in the world, in science, and in our families. We each had four children that were close in age. He made life fun not only for my family and me but also for everyone in the division with picnics, hikes, and bicycle rides.
As he traveled, people he encountered began showing up in the lab: researchers from Finland, France, India, Thailand, and Israel became part of Barry’s expanded family.
Barry had had relatively little training or experience in clinical medicine. He had faith, however, that his approach—identifying variants in blood, then finding out what they meant—was more informative than starting with a disease and trying to find its cause, as was then and is now the standard method. It was that approach that led him to identify the antigen on the surface of the hepatitis B virus. He later made a vaccine against the virus, which is the leading cause of liver cancer.
In 1976, Barry received the Nobel Prize in Medicine for his discovery. He shared his success with our entire group and took as many to the ceremony in Stockholm as was allowed—about 15, with spouses. The trip remains etched in my memory. It was like Cinderella going to the ball, complete with a handsome king, a beautiful queen (Barry’s wife, Jean), and medieval venues. Barry loved it. He stayed up most of the night dancing.
I always knew Barry to be happy. He celebrated his life by living it to the fullest. He was a participator, not a spectator. He climbed mountains, kayaked, and traveled to the four corners of the Earth. As he hit succeeding milestone birthdays, my wife Linda and I would say Barry was the happiest 75-year-old we knew, the happiest 80-year-old we knew, and finally the happiest 85-year- old we knew.
I believe he died a contented man. His legacy of accomplishment has saved an enormous number of lives and prevented hundreds of millions of people from becoming ill with hepatitis B. And his enduring gift to me was his friendship of 50 years.