A biochemist, Blumberg was working in Moengo (in what is now Suriname), trying to discover why some people were more susceptible to sickle cell disease. He noticed something odd in some blood samples, but it was not related to sickle cell disease. In the 1960s, there were two known types of hepatitis: the regular kind (“A”) transmitted through contaminated food, and another, “serum hepatitis” that is spread by blood. Blumberg noticed the abnormality he saw in some blood samples — an antigen — seemed to cause serum hepatitis, now known as hepatitis B.
In 1967 he submitted a paper to a medical journal outlining his discovery — and it was rejected because he was a biochemist, not a virologist. “We were outsiders not known to the main body of hepatitis investigators,” he said later. “We were surprised by the hostility engendered among our new colleagues.” But he was right, and the discovery not only led to a way to detect hepatitis B in the blood supply, thus saving millions of lives, but he also was able to create a vaccine for the disease, saving millions more. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in medicine in 1976 for his discoveries. He then became a cancer researcher at the Fox Chase Cancer Center. “I think it’s fair to say that Barry prevented more cancer deaths than any person who’s ever lived,” said the Center’s scientific director, Jonathan Chernoff. Later, Blumberg became fascinated by Astrobiology (the study of the origin and evolution of non-Earth life), and in 1999 was named the first director of NASA’s Astrobiology Institute. He worked in the field well into his 80s; in fact, he had just given the keynote address at a NASA conference when he had a heart attack. Dr. Baruch “Barry” Blumberg died from complications of that episode on April 5. He was 85.