Baruj Benacerraf, 90; shared 1980 Nobel Prize

By Neena Satija and Mark Feeney
Globe Correspondent | Globe Staff / August 3, 2011

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Baruj Benacerraf, who shared the 1980 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his groundbreaking work in immunology and who for many years led the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, died yesterday of pneumonia at his home in Jamaica Plain. He was 90.

Dr. Benacerraf, who was George Fabyan Professor of Comparative Pathology Emeritus at Harvard Medical School, had been chairman of the pathology department from 1970 to 1991.

Dr. Benacerraf was born in Venezuela and grew up in France. 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, also a professor at Harvard Medical School. She recalled that he would run the bank in New York on Tuesdays and Thursdays and devote the rest of the week to the lab. “He was a very natural businessman,’’ she said.

Dr. Benacerraf’s wife, Annette, died two months ago of heart and respiratory failure, also at home in Jamaica Plain. The couple met through a French club during their undergraduate studies at Columbia University and married in 1943.

“They were really two peas in a pod,’’ said their daughter. “He was sort of the gruff scientist, in a sense, and she was sort of the social person who made everybody comfortable.’’

Dr. Benacerraf took over the Sidney Farber Cancer Institute (later named the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute) in 1980 at a time of administrative turmoil, said Dr. David Nathan, who was chief of pediatric oncology at the time and later became president of the institute.

“Immediately, everybody fell in line, and there were no more troubles,’’ Nathan said of the atmosphere at the institute after Dr. Benacerraf became chief executive. “People were rather in awe of him, and peace reigned. . . . Dana-Farber really flourished during that time period.’’

In his autobiography, “From Caracas to Stockholm,’’ Dr. Benacerraf said that during the years he ran Dana-Farber, his training as a banker was helpful.

Soon after Dr. Benacerraf became president of the institute, he was awarded the Nobel for his work on how the human body distinguishes its own cells from foreign bodies, which it then eradicates. In 1963, while he was at New York University School of Medicine, Dr. Benacerraf and his associates found that the immune system is directed by specific immune-response genes. Using guinea pigs, he demonstrated that the ability to generate an immune response to a specific antigen (or foreign protein) is determined by what he called Ir genes, for immune response.

Dr. Benacerraf shared his prize with George Snell and Jean Dausset.

In the early 1980s, Dr. Benacerraf undertook Dana-Farber’s first major fund-raising drive, contributing his Nobel Prize money toward the effort. The campaign took in more than $60 million, nearly twice its goal.

“He really transformed the institution from a very small, largely pediatric . . . research-oriented institution into a comprehensive cancer center,’’ said Dr. Ed Benz, who has been president of Dana-Farber since 2000.

Dr. Benacerraf had a reputation for bluntness and candor. Asked once by a medical student how to pronounce his first name, he replied, “You don’t.’’

“I like speaking my mind in the most direct manner, and I do not suffer fools gladly,’’ he wrote in his autobiography. Yet he also admitted that, despite his record of sterling achievement, “my success as scientist and administrator has always astonished me. I have regularly initiated new projects with the feeling of impending disaster.’’

He was born in Caracas, the son of Abraham Benacerraf, a textile importer, and Henriette (Lasry) Benacerraf. The family moved to Paris when he was 5. Though dyslexic, he excelled at his studies and continued to do so after the Benacerrafs left France in the spring of 1939.

Dr. Benacerraf completed his secondary education in New York and earned his bachelor’s degree at Columbia in 1942. He learned English by watching movie double features.

His father had wanted him to be a lawyer, and he toyed with the idea of becoming a playwright or director before finally deciding on medicine. All 10 schools he applied to rejected him, either because he was a foreign citizen or because admissions quotas restricted the number of Jewish students. The intervention of a family friend gained him a last-minute acceptance at the Medical College of Virginia.

As part of an accelerated war-time program, Dr. Benacerraf graduated in three years. He did his internship at Queens General Hospital in New York, then served as a US Army doctor in France from 1946-48. (He had become an American citizen in 1943.)

Although Dr. Benacerraf enjoyed clinical medicine, he felt drawn to research. “The critical decision of my life [was] to return to New York and to start my career as an academic scientist in the United States,’’ he wrote.

Dr. Benacerraf had suffered from asthma as a child, which inspired a professional interest in the immune system.

“My curiosity about immunology in 1947 was either a wise choice or a lucky one,’’ he wrote. It would place him at the forefront of what would prove one of the crucial sectors of medical research over the next half century.

In all, Dr. Benacerraf published more than 600 scientific papers and did not close his laboratory until 1996.

Dr. Benacerraf spent two years as a research fellow in the department of microbiology at Columbia’s College of Physicians and Surgeons. There, he first experienced “the exhilarating feeling that accompanies making a discovery.’’

“I was hooked for life as surely as if I had become addicted to heroin,’’ he said.

Dr. Benacerraf moved to Paris in 1950 to be closer to his parents, who had returned there after the war. His wife’s family also lived there. From 1950-56, he was director of research at the National Center for Scientific Research, Broussais Hospital.

In 1956, Dr. Benacerraf accepted an offer to join the faculty at New York University School of Medicine. He remained there until 1968, when he became chief of immunology at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in Bethesda, Md.

Dr. Benacerraf joined the faculty at Harvard Medical School in 1970. He later took great pride in the fact that during the 1980s, he lectured first-year Harvard medical students on immunology, then as second-year students they were lectured on obstetrical ultrasound by his daughter.

“He certainly passed on a love for medicine and a curiosity for how systems work,’’ said Beryl, who struggled with dyslexia for years before realizing it gave her the ability to recognize patterns no other radiologist could see.

The younger Dr. Benacerraf is a radiologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital; a clinical professor of radiology and obstetrics, gynecology, and reproductive biology at Harvard Medical School; and the president and founder of Diagnostic Ultrasound Associates in Boston.

Her father helped navigate her busy schedule. “He helped me through negotiating that and pulling it off,’’ she said. “His attitude is, if you want it all, you can have it all, but you just have to go for it.’’

A member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the National Academy of Sciences, Dr. Benacerraf served as president of the American Association of Immunologists, the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, and the International Union of Immunological Societies. He was awarded the National Medal of Science in 1990.

Despite his professional commitments, he remained devoted to his family, playing an instrumental role in raising his daughter’s two children as she managed her many careers and he retired.

And though the father-daughter pair traversed Harvard Medical School for a number of years as professors, there was no sense of competition, said Beryl, since they occupied different research fields.

“People would ask me if I was related to the famous Dr. Benacerraf,’’ she said, “and people would ask him if he was related to the famous Dr. Benacerraf, which he was quite pleased about.’’

Besides his daughter, Beryl, Dr. Benacerraf leaves his brother, Paul, of Princeton, N.J., and two grandchildren. Funeral arrangements are pending.

Neena Satija can be reached at; Mark Feeney, at