Nobel Laureate Baruj Benacerraf Dies at 90

The Dana-Farber Cancer Institute's former head was a leader in immunology and cancer research.

Baruj Banacerraf

Pathologist Baruj Benacerraf was renowned worldwide for his groundbreaking research in immunology, for which he was awarded a Nobel Prize in 1980. But locally, Benacerraf, who died at his Jamaica Plain home this week at the age of 90, due to pneumonia, was recognized as one of the best leaders the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute has ever had, reports the Boston Globe.

As president of the Boston-based institute in the 1990s, Benacerraf oversaw its expansion and recruited a number of top researchers, several of whom served as teaching professors at Harvard Medical School (HMS). He took over the 64-year-old institution during troubled times in the administration, building it into one of the world’s leading research centers for cancer.

“Immediately, everybody fell in line, and there were no more troubles after he arrived,’’ Stranahan Distinguished Professor of pediatrics David Nathan, who was chief of pediatric oncology at Dana-Farber at the time and later became its president, told the Globe. “People were rather in awe of him, and peace reigned….Dana-Farber really flourished during that time period.’’

Born in Caracas, Venezuela, Benacerraf grew up in Paris, arriving in the United States in 1939 to study medicine. After studying at Columbia University and the Medical College of Virginia, Benacerraf served in the U.S. Army Medical Corps before starting his career in medical research, chairing the pathology department as the Fabyan professor of comparative pathology from 1970 to 1991. The University recognized his achievements with an honorary degree in 1992.

According to the Scientist, Benacerraf’s Nobel Prize-winning work grew out of a chance observation that led to his discovery 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 foreign body is determined by what he called Ir genes (the initials standing for immune response).  

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