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Baruch S. Blumberg: Bold Exploration and Pioneering Research

Our third Blumberg Dialogue in Astrobiology concluded on the afternoon of August 6th, bringing to a close an intense seminar series held this year with scholars from around the country and across disciplines. Designed as a complement to the Baruch S. Blumberg NASA/Library of Congress Chair in Astrobiology, the dialogue series gathered more than 20 scholars of religion, philosophy, history, rhetoric, literature, and the arts to discuss the humanistic and societal implications of discoveries in astrobiology and to involve new scholars in a burgeoning field. It was a fitting tribute to the man whose name the series bears: Baruch S. Blumberg.

Baruch “Barry” S. Blumberg (1925-2011) was a Nobel Prize-winning scientist and a pioneer in every sense of the word. As Dr. Carl Pilcher, the director of the NASA Astrobiology Institute, tells it in his tribute to Blumberg, Blumberg’s service in the U.S. Naval Reserve during World War II equipped the young officer with planning and logistics skills that would serve him throughout his life.[1] In 1950, between his third and fourth years of medical school at Columbia University, Blumberg spent a number of months in Suriname conducting ethnographic research on the prevalence of malaria and filariasis. The experience was formative and triggered a life-long fascination with how environmental and genetic factors influence susceptibility to diseases. Blumberg became best known for his work on the virus that causes Hepatitis B, which led to the development of a vaccine. For his work on viruses and their mechanisms of infection, he shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1976,with D. Carleton Gajdusek.

Baruch S. Blumberg

Baruch S. Blumberg, after whom the Baruch S. Blumberg NASA/Library of Congress Chair in Astrobiology and Blumberg Dialogues on Astrobiology are named.

The details of this scientific process are covered by Pilcher in the previously mentioned tribute. The research Blumberg conducted was bold and groundbreaking, and not immediately understood or well-received. In 1967, one of his studies claiming to have found an antigen that could indicate Hepatitis B infection was reviewed with skepticism and rejected for publication. Blumberg continued the work, making the reagents available to other scientists around the world who would validate his initial findings.

Blumberg’s involvement with astrobiology came later in his life. In the late 1990s, while teaching in the Human Biology program at Stanford University, Blumberg came into contact with staff and researchers from NASA’s Ames Research Center. At the time, NASA was preparing to initiate its astrobiology program, which is concerned with three fundamental questions: “how does life begin and evolve, does life exist elsewhere in the universe, and what is the future of life on Earth and beyond?”[2] NASA needed a visionary leader who could give direction to the nascent program, and Blumberg brought all the right qualities to the task.

Beginning in 2001, Blumberg also served on the Library of Congress Scholars Council, a body of distinguished scholars appointed to advise the Librarian of Congress on matters related to scholarship at the Library, with special attention to the Kluge Center and the Kluge Prize. During this time Blumberg began to envision a venue within which to encourage scholarly reflection about the humanistic and societal implications of the discoveries emerging from NASA’s astrobiology program. The Library, with its vast science collections and other related materials, made for an ideal venue. When Blumberg passed away in 2011, Pilcher and Dr. Carolyn Brown, then director of the Kluge Center, continued the effort and the Baruch S. Blumberg NASA/Library of Congress Chair in Astrobiology was announced shortly thereafter. Planetary scientist David Grinspoon, the first chairholder, began his residence at the Library in November 2012. Historian of science Steven Dick followed in 2013.

As we conclude the Blumberg Dialogues and prepare for the arrival of our next astrobiology chair, Nathaniel Comfort, who will research and write about the history of genetics, we remember Baruch “Barry” Blumberg and pay tribute to his pioneering vision, which continues to foster a legacy of research across traditional academic boundaries.

Notes

[1] Historical details about Blumberg’s life are drawn from Carl Pilcher’s article “Explorer, Nobel Laureate, Astrobiologist: Things You Never Knew about Barry Blumberg,” ASTROBIOLOGY, Vol. 15, Number 1, 2015. Additional information can be found in Blumberg’s autobiography, “Hepatitis B: The Hunt for a Killer Virus” (Princeton University Press, 2002).

[2] “The NASA Astrobiology Roadmap,” ASTROBIOLOGY, Volume 8, Number 4, 2008, p. 715.

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