Baruj Benacerraf, who shared a Nobel Prize in 1980 for medicine for breakthroughs in immunology, and later headed Boston’s Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, died Aug. 2 at 90.
Benacerraf and other researchers discovered that immune reactions are controlled by genes. The Nobel committee noted that “While fighting off infectious agents, our immune defenses must take extreme care not to avoid harming any cells belonging to its own host. Achieving this requires a sophisticated self-identification system, and this is centered on a collection of genes called the major histocompatibility complex. … Uncovering such a complex system involved piecing together observations from unconnected areas over the course of decades, and the 1980 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine rewarded these achievements.”
Benacerraf’s work “explained why some people were better able to defend themselves against infection than others and why certain people were at greater risk than others of contracting multiple sclerosis, lupus and other autoimmune diseases, in which the body’s immune system attacks its own tissues,” and “extended to understanding immunological reactions in organ transplants, explaining why the body would often reject a foreign organ and offering insights on the likelihood of success in transplantation.”
He took over the Sidney Farber Cancer Institute (now the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute) in 1980 “at a time of administrative turmoil” and brought it back to research and organizational prominence.
“Immediately, everybody fell in line, and there were no more troubles,’’ said Dr. David Nathan, then the institute’s chief of pediatric oncology and later its president.
Benacerraf was born in Caracas, Venezuela, to Sephardic Jewish parents and moved to Paris with his family in 1925. In an autobiography he wrote for the Nobel organization, Benacerraf said that “My primary and secondary education was in French, which had a lasting influence on my life.” The family fled France at the beginning of World War II, and Benacerraf was sent to college in the United States. He received his bachelor’s degree at Columbia University in 1942 and a medical degree from the Medical College of Virginia. He was rejected by top U.S. medical schools because of their quota systems against Jews, but later served on the faculty of two of them.
He conducted medical research in Paris, and then back in the U.S. at New York University, the National Institutes of Health and Harvard before going to the Farber Institute.
Benacerraf wrote that he went into immunology for a personal reason: “Motivated by intellectual curiosity, (I) decided upon a career in medical research at a time when such a choice was not fashionable. My interest was directed, from my medical student days, to Immunology, and particularly to the mechanism of hypersensitivity. I had suffered from bronchial asthma as a child and had developed a deep curiosity in allergic phenomena.”
In his early years as a researcher, he also conducted the family’s banking business in Venezuela. An art collector and flutist, he also oversaw a family banking business during the 1950s while conducting medical research.
“He was very efficient,’’ said his daughter, Dr. Beryl Benacerraf, a professor at Harvard Medical School, noting that he would run the bank for two days a week and devote the rest of the week to the lab. “He was a very natural businessman.”
In his 1998 autobiography, “From Caracas to Stockholm,’’ Benacerraf wrote that his training as a banker was helpful during the years he ran Dana-Farber. A full list of his numerous awards and honorary doctorates can be found here.