Campus & Community

Baruj Benacerraf, Nobel laureate, 90

4 min read

Immunologist led Dana-Farber, chaired pathology at HMS

Baruj Benacerraf, who earned a 1980 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine for his groundbreaking research in immunology and led Dana-Farber Cancer Institute through a period of tremendous growth beginning that year, died in Boston on Aug. 2 at the age of 90.

Benacerraf’s medical legacy is broad. As a physician-scientist, he discovered that genetic factors play a central role in the function of the immune system, a finding that paved the way for most of modern immunology and earned the Nobel Prize for him and colleagues Jean Dausset of the Université de Paris, and George D. Snell of Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor, Maine.

As president of Dana-Farber, Benacerraf helped the institution expand both physically and scientifically. He recruited top researchers and clinicians from around the world to Dana-Farber’s Boston campus, where they could also serve as teaching professors at Harvard Medical School next door. He himself was chairman of the Department of Pathology and was the George Fabyan Professor of Comparative Pathology at Harvard Medical School from 1970 to 1991.

As Dana-Farber’s international reputation grew, so did its physical footprint, with completion of the Louis B. Mayer Laboratories in 1988 and the Richard A. and Susan F. Smith Research Laboratories building nearly a decade later. Benacerraf led Dana-Farber through that expansion, tapping into his keen understanding of business, which he developed from his father, a successful financier and textile importer.

Stepping down as president in 1992, he continued working daily in his own lab at Dana-Farber into his 80s, and hosted an annual symposium at which he delighted in chatting with the many former students and protégés who had become international leaders in the fight against cancer and related diseases.

“Dr. Benacerraf’s seminal discoveries about genetic control of the immune system made possible much of what we now know about basic disease processes such as infection, autoimmune disorders, and cancer,” said Dana-Farber President Edward J. Benz Jr. “His work has shaped everything from organ transplantation, to AIDS treatment, to, most recently, the development of therapeutic cancer vaccines.”

Benacerraf had an upbringing that helped shape him as a leader. Born in Caracas, Venezuela, in 1920, and raised in pre-World War II Paris, he came to the United States in 1939. He was educated first at Columbia University, and then at the Medical College of Virginia. After serving in the U.S. Army Medical Corps, he began a career in medical research. In his 1998 autobiography, “From Caracas to Stockholm: A Life In Medical Science,” he discussed the anti-Semitic quota systems and anti-foreigner bias he encountered in being rejected by 25 medical schools, including Harvard.

In 1956 he went to New York University School of Medicine to work in cellular immunology, where his students included future Dana-Farber colleagues Steven Burakoff and Stuart Schlossman. Schlossman said it was Benacerraf’s ability to identify good people and bring them together that made him so successful as a leader.

“He was extremely considerate of people, and had sensitivity for their needs,” said Schlossman, the Baruj Benacerraf Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School. “He created an environment where everybody could prosper, and young people could develop wonderful careers of their own. The scientific health of our community was supported tremendously by Dr. Benacerraf.”

His late wife, Annette Dreyfus, who died on June 3, was the niece of another Nobel laureate (Jacques Lucien Monod) and was almost always by Benacerraf’s side at symposia and other events in recent years. Their only child, Beryl 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 at Diagnostic Ultrasound Associates.

In addition to his daughter, he is survived by his brother Paul Benacerraf, who is the James S. McDonnell Distinguished University Professor of Philosophy emeritus at Princeton University and former provost at Princeton (1988-91), and two grandchildren, Brigitte Libby of Chestnut Hill, and Oliver Libby of New York City.

“Baruj Benacerraf was a congenital leader,” said Dana-Farber President Emeritus David G. Nathan. “He combined scientific insight, brilliant management skills, no-nonsense tolerance, fierce loyalty, and remarkable vision. Dana-Farber achieved widely accepted prominence under his guidance. We are deeply grateful to his memory and to his late wife, daughter, and grandchildren, who shared so much of him with us.”