RIP Barry Blumberg


I hadn’t realized it, but my mother told me when I last spoke to her that the former Master of Balliol, Barry Blumberg, had died.

I think of him as “the former Master of Balliol,” because that’s how I knew him, but to the rest of the world, he’s the man who prevented more deaths from cancer than any other person who has ever lived.

He identified the Hepatitis B virus, developed a diagnostic test for it, and then, amazingly, developed a vaccine for it–the first vaccine against human cancer, and now one of the most widely-used vaccines in the world.

For these achievements, he won the 1976 Nobel Prize in medicine.

His obituary in the New York Times will give you a sense of the remarkable life he lived. The scientific story itself is an extraordinary one:

Blumberg developed a unique method to test the blood samples he acquired: he used hemophiliac patients. His reasoning was really quite brilliant. He knew hemophiliacs would have been exposed to blood serum proteins they themselves had not inherited through their multiple blood transfusions. This would cause their body to produce more antibodies than an average patient.  In effect, the hemophiliacs acted as reservoirs of the blood properties of many individuals, allowing Blumberg to produce a wide array of antibodies to use in testing the collected samples. It was a match between a New York hemophiliac and an Australian aborigine that proved to be the breakthrough. The “Australian antigen” was identified and, through further study, it proved to be responsible for producing hepatitis B. It was when Blumberg’s keen mind encountered the surprising data that the amazing occurred. Though Blumberg was only studying the impact of inherited traits, and was not looking for hepatitis B, he was ready. His years of training and discipline prepared him, and within two years the world had its first vaccine to fight the deadly effects of hepatitis B.

But I remember him best as a lovely, avuncular man. He and my stepfather, who is also a doctor, were friends. When I was a student, my mother and stepfather came to visit me, and the Master took us hiking in the Cotswolds. I have photos of this excursion in the photo album I retrieved from my grandmother’s basement–that’s us, after a long happy day of wandering through the countryside. The spring wildflowers were coming into bloom. That’s him, on the left, in the plaid shirt. 

Saving lives, he said, was the whole point of his career. “Well, it is something I always wanted to do,” he said. “This is what drew me to medicine. There is, in Jewish thought, this idea that if you save a single life, you save the whole world, and that affected me.”

In his case, this was not just an idea in Jewish thought: He really did save a significant part of the whole world. 

I also remember his warm, practical wife Jean very fondly. I send her my deep condolences. What a loss to his family. What a life well-lived. 

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  1. Profile Photo Member

    He was appointed, Judith, I believe, after one of those struggles for the Mastership brought to vivid literary life in C.P. Snow’s The Masters. After they all nearly killed each other feuding (if I rightly recall, my memory is dim now), they figured the only solution was to bring in an outsider. He’d been a student at Balliol. He was a Nobel Prize winner–only a credential like that would have been sufficient to command authority and tamp down the rancor, wounded vanity and bitterness of thwarted ambition that ensued from the battle.

    I’ll leave the names out of it, but you probably remember them.

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  2. Profile Photo Inactive

    Looks like he passed on some of his passion to you ladies. We thank him for that as well.

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  3. Profile Photo Member

    Wow. I didn’t know he had died. He was my “moral tutor” (they do know how to turn a phrase at Oxford) when I was at Balliol. Academically we had nothing in common — he was a scientist, and I was up to my eyebrows in maps of Israeli desert campaigns of 1948 — but it didn’t matter. He was a lovely, gentle, approachable man.

    I don’t know if you had this sense at all, Claire, but he always struck me as ever so slightly bewildered by his position as Master. He certainly wasn’t one of the good ol’ boys, that was for sure. Still, he took to the Mastership with an admirable, soft-spoken grace.

    The world is much better off for his having been in it.

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