Nobel Laureate Baruch S. Blumberg died of an apparent heart attack on April 5, while attending a conference at NASA Ames Research Center. He was 85.

Known to friends and colleagues as Barry, Dr. Blumberg served as the first director of the NASA Astrobiology Institute (1999-2002) and an advocate for astrobiology ever since. At the time of his death, he was Distinguished Scientist at the both the NASA Astrobiology Institute and the NASA Lunar Science Institute.

Dr. Blumberg was a winner of the 1976 Nobel Prize in Medicine or Physiology, sharing the prize with Daniel Carleton Gajdusek for “discoveries concerning new mechanisms for the origin and dissemination of infectious diseases” and, specifically, discovery of the hepatitis B virus – considered by some to be one of the greatest medical achievements of the 20th century. Dr. Blumberg also contributed to the development of a blood test to detect the virus and the first hepatitis B vaccine.

In the 1990s, because of Dr. Blumberg’s many accomplishments, NASA Administrator Dan Goldin (1992-2001) recruited him to head the agency’s new, virtual Astrobiology Institute and help build up an Astrobiology Program. At an October 14 symposium held to mark the 50th anniversary of NASA’s exobiology and astrobiology programs, Mr. Goldin recalled his first meeting with Dr. Blumberg, noting that Blumberg had speculated aloud that Goldin would not want someone as old as he was (then in his 70s) to fill the position. Mr. Goldin said he’d told Blumberg that what counted wasn’t his age but his energy level “and you seem like about 22 to me.” (In another conversation, Dr. Blumberg said he did not recall that part of the conversation….) Mr. Goldin praised him for doing “a magnificent job” at the Institute.

Ever since he joined NASA, Dr. Blumberg was an untiring advocate for astrobiology – not only for NASA’s program but also for the field of research as a whole. In 2006, he offered these views: “Rarely, if ever, has a federal R&D program sparked such broad impact in only a decade. Astrobiology science and/or educational activities exist at some level in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and in Puerto Rico. Astrobiology research can be found at 38 of the nation’s top 50 research universities and in 222 research institutions nationwide. The quality of the science in astrobiology is impressive….”

In his Nobel Prize autobiography (1976), Blumberg wrote: “I was born in 1925, in New York City, the second of three children of Meyer and Ida Blumberg. My grandparents came to the United States from Europe at the end of the 19th century. They were members of an immigrant group who had enormous confidence in the possibilities of their adopted country…. My non-scientific interests are primarily in the out-of-doors. I have been a middle distance runner (very non-competitive) for many years and also play squash. We canoe on the many nearby lakes and rivers of Pennsylvania and New Jersey. I enjoy mountain walking and have hiked in many parts of the world on field trips. With several friends we own a farm in western Maryland, which supplies beef for the local market. Shoveling manure for a day is an excellent counterbalance to intellectual work….” Upon receiving his prize, he told the New York Times: “I’m especially pleased that someone from Philadelphia won. It’s appropriate in the Bicentennial year and makes up in part for the Phillies not making it to the World Series.”

Before coming to NASA, Dr. Blumberg was a research physician at Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia, PA. He held a B.S. degree from Union College in Schenectady, NY (1946), an M.D. from Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons (1951), and a Ph.D. in biochemistry from Oxford University (1957). He worked with the National Institutes of Health from 1957 to 1965, at which time he joined the Fox Chase Cancer Center. At age 64, Dr. Blumberg returned to Oxford as master of Balliol College, becoming the first scientist and first U.S. citizen to hold the position. Dr. Blumberg was the recipient of numerous other awards in addition to the Nobel Prize, including the Eppinger Prize from the University of Freiburg (1973), the Distinguished Achievement Award in Modern Medicine (1975), the Governor’s Award in the Sciences from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania (1988), and the Gold Medal Award from the Canadian Liver Foundation (1990). Dr. Blumberg was especially proud of his role in the American Philosophical Society, the oldest learning society in the United States (established in 1743). He was elected to membership in the society in 1986, and he served as its president from 2005 until his death.

Dr. Blumberg was admirable for many reasons, including his sharp intellect, outstanding communication skills, and wry sense of humor. One of his special qualities was his appreciation for working with women (who dominated the staff of the NAI in its early years). He appreciated those social qualities that are especially strong among women – the nurturing, warmth, and desire for connection.

In October 2010 Blumberg participated in the USA Science and Engineering Festival’s “Lunch with a Laureate” program, providing middle and high school students of the greater Washington area a chance to engage in an informal conversation with a Nobel Prize-winning scientist over a brown-bag lunch. He was scheduled to return to his alma mater Union College for a reunion weekend next month to deliver a keynote address.

“The world has lost a great man,” said Mr. Goldin on hearing of Dr. Blumberg’s death. “Barry saved lives through his research on the Hepatitis B virus. He also inspired a whole generation of people worldwide through his work in building the NASA Astrobiology Institute. On a personal level, he improved my life through his friendship. Our planet is an improved place as a result of Barry’s few short days in residence.”

Dr. Blumberg is survived by his wife, Jean Liebesman, their two sons and two daughters, and nine grandchildren.

He will be sorely missed.

Additional interviews and articles featuring Barry Blumberg and his work can be found at the Astrobiology Magazine (astrobio.net):

NASA’s Astrobiology Origins (11/24/2008)
Barry Blumberg and Dan Goldin, NASA’s Administrator from April 1992 to November 2001, discuss the origins of NASA’s Astrobiology Program.

Does Hepatitis B Affect Human Gender Ratios? (06/01/2006)
In this first part of a two-part interview, Dr. Blumberg discusses the possible role of the hepatitis B virus in controlling the ratio between men and women in the human population.

Viruses and Astrobiology (06/05/06)
In this second and final part of the interview, Dr. Blumberg discusses the worldwide effort to vaccinate children against hepatitis B.