DelVal Trustee and Nobel Prize Winner Passes Away at 85

Apr 07, 2011

By Annmarie Ely

Dr. Baruch Blumberg, the 1976 Nobel Prize winner who discovered the hepatitis B virus, died April 5 after serving 14 years on Delaware Valley College’s Board of Trustees.

Dr. Blumberg was a resident of Philadelphia and helped found The Hepatitis B Foundation in Doylestown.

“We are honored to have had such a distinguished member of the scientific community take an interest in Delaware Valley College,” President Joseph S. Brosnan said. “Dr. Blumberg shared his intellectual curiosity and love of the sciences with the college community. As an institution with a growing reputation in the sciences, we are privileged to have Dr. Blumberg’s example for our students to follow.”

The hepatitis B virus, which Dr. Blumberg both discovered and helped develop the vaccine for, is a virus that attacks the liver. Infection can cause liver damage, liver cancer and death. It can be spread through contact with blood and bodily fluids, from an infected mother to a child and through sex with an infected person.

Dr. Blumberg discovered hepatitis B while studying different populations around the world to try to determine why some people were more likely to get sick. His research took him to places such as India, Brazil, Africa and Australia. While examining the blood of an Australian Aborigine, he isolated a protein that was part of the hepatitis B virus.

In 2002, he wrote a book about his discovery called “Hepatitis B: The Hunt for a killer Virus.”

“The world has lost an extraordinary human being and an exceptional scientist who devoted his life to conduct research for the benefit of mankind,” said Dr. Joshua Feldstein, president emeritus of Delaware Valley College. “His dedication and accomplishments have inspired other scientists to pursue research to prevent and cure deadly diseases. I will always remember his friendship and the privilege to discuss with him topics of mutual interest. Delaware Valley College has lost a distinguished person who was the first Nobel Laureate to serve on the Board of Trustees.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control, from the time routine hepatitis B vaccination began to 2007, reported incidents of acute hepatitis B infection had dropped by more than 94 percent among children and adolescents. The rate among the general population had dropped by about 75 percent by 2007.

After Dr. Blumberg identified the virus, tests were quickly developed to screen blood donors for hepatitis B, which greatly reduced transmission of the virus through blood transfusions.

“I think of course Dr. Blumberg was one of a kind and his work is some of the most important in science and in medicine,” said Dr. Timothy Block, president of the Hepatitis B Foundation. “For our foundation he was an inspirational and motivational leader. He met with our faculty and students, many of which were DelVal students. He loved DelVal. He loved its students and its mission.”

His work improved the lives of countless people around the world. The Washington Post reported that since the vaccine became commercially available in 1982 more than 1 billion doses have been administered around the world.

Dr. Blumberg was born in New York on July 28, 1925. He graduated from Union College where he studied physics in 1946 and earned a medical degree from Columbia University in 1951. He earned a doctorate in biochemistry from Oxford University.

He was passionate about research and its possibilities for improving human lives.

“Anyone who has been immersed in the world of a busy city hospital, a world of wretched lives, of hope destroyed by devastating illness, cannot easily forget that the objective of big-medical research is, in the end, the prevention and cure of disease,” said Dr. Blumberg in his autobiography for The Nobel Prize.

He joined Fox Chase Cancer Center in 1964, where he served as associate director for clinical research, vice president for population oncology and distinguished scientist.

In 1997, he joined DelVal’s Board of Trustees.

In 1999, he became the first director of the NASA Astrobiology Institute at Ames. He served as director there until 2002.

The center studies the origin, evolution, distribution and future of life in the universe.

Dr. Blumberg liked to ask questions such as “Are we alone?” “What is life?” and “How did life originate?”

He served as president of the American Philosophical Society and would often cross disciplines bringing quotes from philosophy into his scientific lectures.

“His curiosity was endless. It took him to space. The Earth wasn’t enough for him,” said Dr. Block.

Dr. Blumberg was in California doing what he loved when he passed away. He was attending a conference at NASA’s Ames Research Center when died from what is thought to have been a heart attack.

“They say one person can change the world. He really did,” said Dr. Block. “Nothing will be the same with out him, but so much has changed because of him. He will always be an example and an inspiration to us all.”

Dr. Blumberg is survived by his wife Jean, his four children and nine grandchildren.