ⓘ Baruj Benacerraf
Baruj Benacerraf was a Venezuelan-American immunologist, who shared the 1980 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for the "discovery of the major histocompatibility complex genes which encode cell surface protein molecules important for the immune systems distinction between self and non-self." His colleagues and shared recipients were Jean Dausset and George Davis Snell.
1. Early life and education
Benacerraf was born in Caracas, Venezuela on October 29, 1920, to Sephardic Jewish parents from Morocco and Algeria. His father was a textile merchant. His brother is the well-known philosopher Paul Benacerraf. Benacerraf moved to Paris from Venezuela with his family in 1925. After going back to Venezuela, he emigrated to the U.S. in 1940. That same year, Benacerraf attended Lycee Français de New York, where he earned a Baccalaureat an academic qualification French students achieve after high school and a diploma necessary to begin university studies. In 1942 he earned his B.S. at Columbia University School of General Studies. He then went on to obtain his Doctor of Medicine M.D. degree from the Medical College of Virginia, the only school to which he was accepted due to his Jewish background. Shortly after beginning medical school, Benacerraf became a naturalized U.S. citizen.
From his Nobel autobiography: "By that time, I had elected to study biology and medicine, instead of going into the family business, as my father would have wanted. I did not realize, however, that admission to Medical School was a formidable undertaking for someone with my ethnic and foreign background in the United States of 1942. In spite of an excellent academic record at Columbia, I was refused admission by the numerous medical schools I applied to and would have found it impossible to study medicine except for the kindness and support of George W. Bakeman, father of a close friend, who was then Assistant to the President of the Medical College of Virginia in Richmond. Learning of my difficulties, Mr. Bakeman arranged for me to be interviewed and considered for one of the two remaining places in the Freshman class."
After his medical internship US Army service 1945–48, and working at the military hospital of Nancy, France, he became a researcher at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons 1948–50. He performed research in Paris 1950–56, relocated to New York University 1956–68, moved to the National Institutes of Health 1968–70, then joined Harvard University medical school in Boston 1970–91 where he became the Fabyan Professor of comparative Pathology, concurrently serving the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute 1980. He began studying allergies in 1948, and discovered the Ir immune response genes that govern transplant rejection in the 1960s. Including a variety of different editions, Benacerraf is an author of over 300 books and articles.
At Columbia, Benacerraf got his start in Immunology with Elvin A. Kabat. He spent two years there working on experimental hypersensitivity mechanisms. He then moved to Paris because of family issues and accepted a position in Bernard Halperns laboratory at the Hopital Broussais. Here he also formed a close relationship with a young Italian scientist, Guido Biozzi. For six years he worked on the reticuloendothelial function in relation to immunity. The reticuloendothelia function is the white blood cells inside of a barrier tissue. While there they discovered techniques to study the clearance of particulate matter from the blood by the RES reticuloendothelial system, and devised equations that govern this process in mammals. After six years Baruj returned to the United States because he could not make his own independent laboratory in France. In the U.S. he developed his own laboratory in New York City and returned to study on hypersensitivity. In New York, Baruj worked with several other immunologists on different fields of hypersensitivity. After working in his New York lab, Baruj turned his attention towards the training of new scientists. Also in this time frame Baruj made the decision to devote himself to his laboratory practices, instead of the family business. At this time Baruj also made the discovery that would go on to win him the Nobel Prize. He noticed that if antigens something that causes a reaction with the immune system were injected into animals with a similar heredity, two groups emerged: responders and non-responders. He then conducted further study and found that the dominant autosomal genes, termed the immune response genes, determined the response to certain antigens. This complex process would lead to the understanding of how these genes would determine immune responses.
His discovery still holds true, and more has been discovered over the last century. More than 30 genes have been discovered in a gene complex called the major histocompatibility complex. The histocompatibility complex is a complex part of DNA that controls the immune response. This research has also led to clarify auto immune diseases like multiple sclerosis and rheumatoid arthritis.
He was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1971.
Other notable awards include:
- Charles A. Dana Award for pioneering achievements in Health and Education 1996
- National Medal of Science 1990
- Gold-Headed Cane Award of the American Association for Investigative Pathology 1996
- Rous-Whipple Award of the American Association of Pathologists 1985
4. Honorary degrees received
- Honorary Degree of Doctor of Sciences, Virginia Commonwealth University 1981
- Honorary Degree of Doctor of Medicine, University of Vienna 1995
- Honorary Degree of Doctor of Sciences, Universite de Bordeaux 1993
- Honorary Degree of Doctor of Sciences, New York University 1981
- Honorary Degree of Doctor of Sciences, Adelphi University 1988
- Honorary Degree of Doctor of Sciences, Harvard University 1992
- Honorary Degree of Doctor of Sciences, Gustav Adolphus University 1992
- Honorary Degree of Doctor of Philosophy, Weizmann Institute of Sciences 1989
- Honorary Degree of Doctor of Sciences, Columbia University 1985
- Honorary Degree of Doctor of Sciences, Yeshiva University 1982
5. Later years and death
His autobiography was published in 1998. Benacerraf died on August 2, 2011 in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts of pneumonia. His wife, Annette, predeceased him that same year in June.