Science,” says Dr. Baruch Blumberg, “is not as scientific as people think it is. Cold logic is not the only method scientists use. Style is very important. You often hear the word ‘elegant’ to describe scientific work.”
Blumberg is one scientist who can hardly be accused of icy detachment. A wiry, balding man of 51 known as “Barry” to all, he’s a jogger, squash player and white-water canoeist, a camera bug and military history buff, a globetrotting teacher. He is fond of contemporary American fiction (particularly the writings of Malamud, Bellow and Vonnegut) and movies (“I love King Kong—the old version”). He also dabbles in the Democratic politics of the Society Hill district of Philadelphia, where he and his family have lived the past eight years.
When it comes to his scientific work, Blumberg’s contributions have been both elegant and substantial. This winter he squeezed a trip to Stockholm into his hectic schedule—to pick up a Nobel Prize for medicine.
Dr. Blumberg has never had a medical practice of his own. “Although I was trained as a clinical physician, I chose to go into research,” he explains. “About 20 percent of my class did the same.” As his Nobel citation observed, Blumberg devised a technique, now used routinely by doctors, to screen blood donors for hepatitis, once a serious hazard in transfusions. He also did the theoretical work leading to a vaccine, now being tested, to prevent cancer of the liver.
Blumberg heads a staff of 40 at the Institute for Cancer Research in Philadelphia, but spends little time in the lab. “You can’t get too far away from people and diseases if you’re going to understand people and the diseases they get,” he says. As a professor at the University of Pennsylvania Medical School, he spends six weeks each year touring hospital wards “to see patients and ask the appropriate questions.” Another six weeks are devoted to research in the field—often as far away as Surinam or Senegal. “I’ve always been fascinated,” he says, “how people differ in their resistance or susceptibility to disease.” Out of his travels has come a course in medical anthropology, which Blumberg teaches Penn undergraduates.
The son of a lawyer, the Brooklyn-born Blumberg attended Union College, Columbia University Medical School and Oxford University. While interning at New York’s Bellevue Hospital, he met and married his wife, Jean, who was herself a research technician. With all four of their children in school—two sons and two daughters ranging in age from 11 to 19—she has taken up painting.
The children help their famous dad maintain his equilibrium. He winces, for example, at being described as a Renaissance man, adding, “It creates a lot of derisive hoots around the house.”
Blumberg shared his Nobel Prize—and the cash award of $160,000—with Dr. D. Carleton Gajdusek of the U.S. National Institutes of Health. Though the prize is normally thought of as the peak of any scientific career, Blumberg has no inclination to retire to the family farm in New Hope, Pa. The protean Blumberg acknowledges that one ambition he does not have is to become a man of the soil. “I am,” he says, “a crummy gardener.”