Baruch Blumberg (1925 -2011)


(Portrait of Dr. Baruch Blumberg taken in 1999. Image credit: NASA)

The SETI Insitute joins our friends at NASA, the Fox Chase Cancer Center and the American Philosophical Society in mourning the passing of one of the world's brightest lights.

Dr. Baruch "Barry" Blumberg was a member of the SETI Institute Board of Trustees from March 2003 until his passing on April 5, 2011. Active until the very moment of his passing, Dr. Blumberg provided extraordinary leadership and inspiration to the world.

See below for tributes from David Morrison, SETI Institute Carl Sagan Center Director and other contributors.

By David Morrison, SETI Institute Carl Sagan Center Director

Baruch (Barry) Blumberg (1925-2011) died suddenly on 5 April while participating in a scientific conference at NASA Ames Research Center. Barry was a Nobel Laureate and the developer of a vaccine for Hepatitis B that saved millions of lives. As a founder of the discipline of astrobiology, Director of the NASA Astrobiology Institute, and Trustee of the SETI Institute, Barry has made unique contributions to our science and enriched all of our lives with his wisdom and warm personality.

Barry Blumberg grew up in Queens, New York, attended Union College in Schenectady, and served as a junior officer in the U.S. Navy. In 1951 he obtained an M.D. degree from Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons. Recognizing his interest in research, he enrolled at Balliol College, Oxford, and received a Ph.D. in 1957. His remarkable research career was devoted both to understanding the fundamental biology of viruses and to using this knowledge to improve public health. His field studies took him around the world, including residence in underdeveloped parts of Africa, Asia, and the Arctic. Many of his dreams were realized when he led the team that isolated the Hepatitis B virus and developed a vaccine. Barry became a world hero for this work, which saved millions of lives, particularly in the developing world. He has been repeatedly honored by China, for example, and has traveled many times to events that celebrate the conquest of Hepatitis B. This vaccine is, in effect, the first cancer vaccine ever discovered. He received the 1976 Nobel Prize in Medicine for “discoveries concerning new mechanisms for the origin and dissemination of infectious diseases.”

Blumberg has been a staff member at the Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia since 1964. Concurrently he was Master of Balliol College at Oxford from 1989 to 1994, a rare honor for an American and an experience that he treasured. Barry was a true renaissance man, learned in science, society, and the management of research organizations. His wife Jean is an artist and was always a close companion. In 2005 he became the President of the American Philosophical Society, and he never tired of talking about the contributions this unique organization has made to American learning. He was proud to hold the same position, and occupy the same office, as the Society’s founder, Ben Franklin. In discussing the factors that influenced his life, Barry always gave credit to the mental discipline of the Jewish Talmud, and as often as possible he attended weekly Talmud discussion classes until his death. He believed deeply in the rationality and essential goodness of humans, in spite of some evidence to the contrary. Always an optimist, Barry was confident that eventually logic and rationality will triumph.

Many of us first met Barry in the mid-1990s, when he was a visiting scholar at Stanford University. This was when we were formulating an expansion of exobiology to become the broader discipline of astrobiology. Barry attended the astrobiology roadmapping conference at Ames and expressed his interest in this new endeavor. At the initiative of Lynn Harper and several colleagues, Ames Director Harry McDonald invited Barry to become the first permanent Director of the new NASA Astrobiology Institute, then being organized under the Interim Directorship of Scott Hubbard. To our delight Barry accepted – the first Nobel Laureate ever to work for NASA – and he was an inspiring leader.

Barry articulated some of the basic principles that have guided both the Astrobiology Institute (NAI) and the later NASA Lunar Science Institute, such as science primacy, flexibility, collaboration, trust, and education. He encouraged the Institute Teams to pursue new ideas, and suggested that if their actual research trajectory closely followed the plans they had outlined in their proposals, that would be a failure. Collaboration across discipline and institutional divisions was a fundamental value of these new virtual institutes. When some members of the NAI Executive Council suggested that they should have more power in running the organization, he pointed out the difference between influence and power. They had great influence, and he had always followed their advice; that was more important than formal power. Barry also was devoted to education, outreach, and training the next generation of scientists. He inspired the entire organization to think deeply about the relationship between science and society. After his NAI Directorship, Barry was invited to Washington as a senior advisor to the NASA Administrator. He and Dan Goldin, who had grown up in the same part of New York City, developed a close bond. However, Barry was frustrated by the bureaucratic inertia of Washington, and soon escaped back to Fox Chase in Philadelphia.

Barry Blumberg joined the SETI Institute Board of Trustees in March 2003. His extensive understanding of astrobiology science, and his experience at NASA, were great assets for the Institute. Most valuable, however, was his remarkable synthesis of personal warmth and enthusiasm with critical scientific thinking. (Please see the appreciation of Barry from Trustee Linda Bernardi in the accompanying tab).

I was privileged to have lunch with Barry the day he died. He was attending a conference at Ames discussing exploration planning and its relationships with science and education. He presented a paper on the value of citizen science, where thousands of ordinary people can contribute significantly to science while also enjoying themselves in working with real spacecraft data, such as the high-resolution images now being received from NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. Our lunchtime conversation, like so many I have had with Barry, covered a wide spectrum of topics. These included: The significance of the recent discovery of arsenic substitution for phosphorus in a microbe from Mono Lake; and the recent claim of evidence for microbes in a meteorite, together with comparisons with the role that the reported fossil microbes in Mars rock ALH84001 had played in the birth of the discipline of astrobiology. We talked about the challenges of managing science and scientists, and he reminded me of two basic principles: Invest in strengths, not weaknesses; and don’t impose formal organizations until you must, and then keep them to a minimum. We pondered the value of critical thinking, the recent apparent rise in pseudoscience, and the way studying the Talmud had helped him to think logically about difficult, even unanswerable questions. He talked about the value of living in cities, where our daily lives bring us in contact with many new ideas and fascinating people. And we reminisced about the origins of astrobiology and the influence it has had on NASA science.

Barry Blumberg was an intellectual giant. He was also a remarkably gentle, humane person, deeply interested in other people. Barry indirectly saved millions of lives from hepatitis, but he also directly influenced thousands, including many young people, to become scientists and devote their lives to better understanding the natural world of which we are an integral part.

David Morrison, Director
Carl Sagan Center for Study of Life in the Universe
SETI Institute
6 April 2011

The following is an email from Trustee Linda Bernardi to fellow SETI Institute Trustees after learning of Dr. Blumberg's death

April 5, 2011
Dear Fellow Board members,

This is indeed very sad news. Not just for us at the SETI Institute, but truly the world has lost an amazing, eclectic and gifted person. Barry will remain as one of the most outstanding individuals I EVER had the honor to meet. After all, how many people do we know who discovered a virus, got a Nobel Prize, ran a leading cancer research center (for 49 years), worked at NASA, was Master at England's top university (to just name a few things), and to top it all off, was until today the President of the American Philosophical Society (APS), an outstanding organization that Benjamin Franklin established to bring all disciplines of science together for the betterment of the human race. For the last many years being part of APS has been a life changing experience for me, and Barry will be deeply missed at our meeting later this month. Right now, most people are still in shock and disbelief.

I met Barry the first time almost 7 years ago, in his office in Philadelphia, which was Ben Franklin's office. Barry was and always will be a true and honorable intellectual, with a sense of imagination beyond belief. Barry was a great mentor to many people, and we will miss him in a way that words cannot describe. He never stopped learning and never stopped teaching. His appetite for knowledge was unsurpassed, and his ability to inspire unparalleled. He was a true renaissance man, who with his presence touched the world and left his mark everywhere. And all of this with such humility and grace that made Barry even more unique.

Last year Barry had completed a long time goal of hiking long distances around the globe. A few months ago, he and I discussed his updated 5 year life plan, and it was magnificent. At the wonderful age eighty-some years old, Barry would put any twenty-some year old to shame, many times over. Oh, and there was a ten year plan as well! That was a great conversation, full of hope, thirst and determination to learn. Amazing plans.

So, to Barry I say: You will be missed beyond mention. I am not sure what the world would have been without your presence. What a great honor to have known you, my friend. You will never be forgotten, it is simply impossible. People will always remember your boyish smile, your joy for life and insatiable appetite to contribute to the world in every meaningful way. Your intellectual capacity was superb. You have set such a high bar about what one can achieve in life that you leave us speechless. True legends are not those who consider themselves legends, rather those who are deemed as legends by all those around them. And you have been and always will be a true legend. I will always remember your wonderful smile. Thank you for teaching us that there is a lot more that we can each do in this world. Thank you for your friendship and mentorship. You touched my life in so many ways. Right now I simply cannot imagine that you have left us. That will take a very long time, or may never happen. Thank you for teaching us what humans are capable of.

What a true honor to have known Baruch Blumberg.

Linda Bernardi, Trustee
SETI Institute

Other Contributors

(04.08.11) Years ago, before Barry became the NAI Director, I gave a talk on SETI at Fox Chase - Barry attended and had loads of insightful questions for me. Years later I gave a talk on the Allen Telescope Array at an NAI conference - Barry attended and had loads of insightful questions for me. We shared the same hotel during a Bioastronomy meeting on Hamilton Island, and I learned a lot more from chatting with Barry than I ever did from the meeting. I do not think there was anything that he wasn't interested in, and he shared his enthusiasm - his interests were contagious! I was honored when he invited me to give a talk at the American Philosophical Society - it was a wonderful occasion, and his introduction was so eloquent and informative that I barely needed to give my talk. His schedule was demanding and he wasn't able to attend many of our SETI Institute Board of Trustees meetings, but those he attended were memorable - he was wise in so many ways. He also had a wonderful smile and there were few moments when he wasn't lighting up the world with it.

Jill Tarter, Director
Center for Research
SETI Institute

(04.06.11) The news of Barry's passing yesterday came as a shock. It was a privilege to have known him. I met Barry for the first time in 2005 when Astrobiology was threatened once more by politics. He did not hesitate to take the trenches with the rest of us in Washington to avoid what would have been a disaster for our community. He was a man of vision, a scientist who saw all the benefits of a holistic approach to science, combining the many different perspectives from diverse disciplines, and making it one. I briefly saw him a couple of months ago at Ames, at the cafeteria. We said hello in a hurry. He was busy, I was too. Little could I have known that would be the last time I would see him. I will remember a kind, brilliant man, who always took the time for people. Barry will be deeply missed. At a time where stormy skies gather again over us, his passing is that much more light that has been taken away from us. Farewell, Barry.

Nathalie Cabrol, Principal Investigator
SETI Institute

(04.06.11) I am one of those scientists influenced by Dr. Barry Blumberg. He was the director of the young NASA Astrobiology Institute when he encouraged a collaboration with the Centro de Astrobiología in Madrid, Spain. This made it possible for us to observe *both* of two 2002 Leonid meteor storms in an airborne campaign flying from Madrid to Nebraska. Barry's kindness and influence spanned the globe.

Peter Jenniskens, Principal Investigator
SETI Institute

(04.06.11) The accompanying tributes by David Morrison and Linda Bernardi on our web pages capture exactly how I feel about Barry's passing. The best way I can describe the loss to us all is that it creates a vacuum. One that may lessen with the passage of time, but will never go away. Barry was a true mentor to me, and the highest possible inspiration. I will miss him dearly, as will many, many others. In this sad time, my thoughts and prayers go out to his family.

Tom Pierson, CEO
SETI Institute