A Great Guy: Barry Blumberg, 1925-2011

Barry Blumberg passed away yesterday (April 5), during a meeting at NASA Ames Research Center in California. He was 85.

The last time I saw Barry was on October 14, 2010, when he spoke at an astrobiology symposium that I’d organized for NASA. I’d invited him to join a panel addressing the history of NASA’s astrobiology program.

Here’s a bit of the bio I wrote for Barry in October:

“Baruch S. Blumberg is a research physician at Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia, PA. He was the founding director of the NASA Astrobiology Institute (1999-2002), a virtual research organization that is an element of the [NASA] Astrobiology Program. Dr. Blumberg won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, with D. Carleton Gajdusek, in 1976 for discoveries concerning new mechanisms for the origin and dissemination of infectious disease, which led to blood screening programs for the hepatitis B virus. Upon receiving his award, 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.” (See below for the rest….)

Dan Goldin, NASA Administrator from 1992-2001, likes to tell the story of how he brought Barry to NASA, enlisting him to head up the agency’s new, virtual Astrobiology Institute. Dan and Barry sat down with me at an astrobiology conference in 2008 to tell the story of how this development came to pass. Goldin said that at one point during their first meeting, at NASA headquarters, Blumberg speculated aloud that Goldin would not want someone as old as he was (then in his 70s) to fill the position. Goldin said he’d laughed off his concern. Blumberg said he did not recall this part of the conversation….

In a keynote address at the above-mentioned October 14 event, Goldin again told this story, noting he’d told Blumberg that what counted wasn’t his age but his energy level “and you seem like about 22 to me.” He said Blumberg “did a magnificent job” at the Astrobiology Institute.

I have two funny stories to tell about Barry, and I’m sure he’d laugh at both. After last fall’s astrobiology symposium, Barry came to a party at a NASA colleague’s home. My fiancée joined us as well. When I introduced him to Barry, my dear boy asked him, “So what’s your claim to fame?” Some years ago, another NASA colleague and I joined Barry for a program at the Carnegie Institution of Washington. Barry had his car with him – a large and rather rickety station wagon – so he offered to drive us there from NASA headquarters. Witnessing the unflappable Barry navigating his way through typically hideous rush-hour D.C. traffic in this boat of a car, refusing to hurry – and actually stopping at one point, halfway around the treacherous Thomas Circle, to figure out which way to go – was quite a trip….

I liked Barry for many reasons: his sharp intellect, his communication skills, his sense of humor. I especially liked him because he enjoyed working with women. He appreciated those social qualities that are especially strong among women – the nurturing, the warmth, the desire for connection.

Ever since Dan Goldin recruited him to come to work with NASA, Barry was an untiring advocate for astrobiology – not just NASA’s program for the field of research as a whole. At a public event 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….”

Here’s the rest of Barry’s bio:

“Dr. Blumberg has 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 is 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).”

We will miss him.

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