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Baruch Blumberg, 85, Winner of '76 Nobel Prize

April 13, 2011
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Baruch S. Blumberg

Baruch S. Blumberg, 85, a Philadelphia researcher who won the Nobel Prize in medicine in 1976 for his work on hepatitis B, once told a colleague, according to the NASA Watch website, that a day's worth of shoveling manure was an "excellent counterbalance" to the rigors of the intellectual life he led.

He did most of that shoveling on the grounds of the Antietam Meadows Farm, located two miles from the historic Civil War battlefield in Sharpsburg, Md. Blumberg was co-owner of Antietam Meadows, which has produced all-natural beef since 1994.

A service was held this Sunday at Society Hill Synagogue, where the family were longtime members; the following day, Blumberg was buried at the farm.

The noted researcher died of an apparent heart attack April 5 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.

Blumberg, who worked at Fox Chase Cancer Center beginning in 1964 and still maintained an office there, discovered the hepatitis B virus and later helped develop a vaccine against it.

He shared the Nobel with D. Carleton Gajdusek, who died in 2008 and was associated with the National Institute of Neurological Diseases at Bethesda, Md.

A native of New York, Blumberg, who was known to most people as Barry, attended the Yeshivah of Flatbush; Far Rockaway High School in Queens; Union College in Schenectady, N.Y.; and then Columbia University, where he earned a medical degree. He met his wife, Jean, at Bellevue Hospital in Manhattan while he was an intern, and she a biologist and lab technician. They married in 1954. She later became a painter.

Blumberg went on to earn a doctorate in biochemistry from Oxford University. He actually took a break from Fox Chase between 1989 and 1994 to be master of Balliol College at Oxford, a rare honor for an American.

After receiving his doctorate, he returned to the United States in 1957 to join the National Institutes of Health, and headed its Geographic Medicine and Genetics Section until the mid-'60s, when he joined Fox Chase.

The recipient of many awards, he received one that caused a minor controversy. Three years before he received the Nobel, he was awarded the Eppinger Prize, which reportedly was referred to as the "Nobel Prize of liver research." It was bestowed every three years by the Falk Foundation of Freiburg, West Germany.

But in 1984, the truth about Hans Eppinger, for whom the prize was named, was disclosed. It was shown that Eppinger had done experiments on concentration camp inmates. Blumberg told the Jewish Exponent at the time of the disclosures that he would not have accepted the award, which came with a $5,000 prize, if he had known it was named for a war criminal. The Falk Foundation canceled the award when the controversy blew up in the world media.

Blumberg went on record, with the Exponent again, that he saw no dichotomy between science and religion. "Man is meant to take part in the creation itself," the scientist told a reporter in 1976, right after the Nobel was announced. "We're actually just assisting God in the process."

He said that from the book of Genesis, which he referred to by its Hebrew title, Bereshit, he understood that man was supposed to unlock the secrets of the natural world. "Also in Bereshit," he said, "is the fact that man is custodian of the land, and therefore has the responsibility to understand its nature."

Blumberg is survived by his wife, the former Jean Liebesman; daughters Anne Blumberg and Jane Blumberg; sons George Blumberg and Noah Blumberg; and nine grandchildren.

Memorial contributions can be made to: the Baruch S. Blumberg Fund for the Lewis and Clark Grants for Exploration and Field Research at the American Philosophical Society, 104 S. Fifth St., Philadelphia, PA 19106-3387.

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