Baruj Benacerraf remembered as visionary immunologist and Dana-Farber leader


  • August 02, 2011
Baruj Benacerraf, MDBaruj Benacerraf, MD 

As a young man, Baruj Benacerraf was encouraged to follow his father into the family textile business. He left his native Caracas, Venezuela, for the United States and Philadelphia's Textile Engineering School in 1939, but quit after just a few weeks, moved much more by the mysteries of science than that of machines, yarns, and patterns.

He instead chose a career in medical research, and textile's loss was Dana-Farber's — and all of medicine's — gain.

Benacerraf became one of the world's leading immunologists, earning the Nobel Prize in Physiology in 1980 for his breakthrough genetic findings. At Dana-Farber, however, this intellectual giant — who passed away from pneumonia at his Jamaica Plain home this morning at age 90 — will be remembered not only as a gifted researcher but also as an outstanding leader and mentor who guided Dana-Farber through a period of tremendous growth as its president from 1980-92.

Benacerraf's medical legacy is many-fold. As a physician-scientist, he discovered that genetic factors play a central role in the function of the immune system, a breakthrough that paved the way for most of modern immunology and earned the Nobel Prize for him and colleagues Jean Dausset, MD (of Université de Paris), and George D. Snell, PhD (of Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor, Maine). Succeeding Physician-in-Chief Emil Frei, III, MD, who was at the helm of Dana-Farber earlier that same year, Benacerraf helped the institution expand both physically and scientifically.

"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," says Dana-Farber President Edward J. Benz, Jr., MD. "His work has shaped everything from organ transplantation, to AIDS treatment, to, most recently, the development of therapeutic cancer vaccines.

"As President of Dana-Farber," Benz adds, "his talent for leadership was expressed in his ability to attract top scientific talent to the Institute and build a community of supporters to assure its financial future."

Top researchers and clinicians from around the world were recruited by Benacerraf to Dana-Farber and teaching professorships at Harvard Medical School (HMS) next door. He himself was chairman of the Department of Pathology and the George Fabyan Professor of Comparative Pathology at HMS from 1970 to 1991.

And as Dana-Farber's international reputation grew, so did its physical footprint, with completion of the Louis B. Mayer Laboratories in 1988 and the high-rise Richard A. and Susan F. Smith Research Laboratories nearly a decade later. A keen understanding of business gained from decades helping run his family's business before and after his father's 1953 death was another strength Benacerraf used in his position at Dana-Farber. Donor gifts increased tremendously during his presidency, enabling Dana-Farber to fill its new buildings with the latest in research and clinical equipment as well as medical and scientific talent.

Baruj Benacerraf, MDDr. Benacerraf receiving the Nobel Prize from King Carl XVI of Sweden 

"His stature, extraordinary wisdom, and willingness to confront all manner of institutional challenges brought us a prolonged period of peace and prosperity," says longtime colleague and Professor at Dana-Farber and Harvard Medical School David Livingston, MD, "As part of his commitment to ensuring clinical success, he further stabilized relationships with our neighboring Harvard hospitals. He also began to strengthen ties with HMS basic science departments, and that allowed us to begin expanding our scientific faculty."

Long after stepping down as president in 1992, Benacerraf maintained an active presence at the Institute. A Dana-Farber trustee and member of the executive committee, he continued working daily in his own lab into his 80s. At an annual symposium he hosted, he delighted in chatting with the many former students and protégés who had become international leaders in the fight against cancer and related diseases. He was the recipient of honors ranging from named fellowships and libraries to the inception of the Benacerraf Society in 2008, which recognizes the contributions of Dana-Farber donors aiding the Institute's dual objectives of advancing research and delivering compassionate care.

Considerate and sensitive

Benacerraf's upbringing helped shape him as a leader. Born in Caracas in 1920, he spent most of his childhood receiving a classical education in Paris and was always proud of his French heritage. Hitler invaded Poland to start World War II the same month Benacerraf entered college in the United States, and because of their Jewish heritage, his family fled Europe and joined him in New York.

After finishing at Columbia University and serving in the U.S. Army Medical Corps, Benacerraf began his medical research career. In his 1998 autobiography, From Caracas to Stockholm: A Life In Medical Science, he mentions that his own myriad childhood health problems — including a chronic asthmatic cough — spurred his interest in research in general and immunology in particular. Despite his stellar academic background, the anti-Semitic quota systems and anti-foreigner bias he encountered in applying to medical schools led to his being rejected by 25 of them, including Harvard. Only Virginia Medical College accepted him, and there he earned his medical degree.

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, MD, and Stuart Schlossman, MD. Schlossman says it was Benacerraf's ability to identify good people and bring them together that made his mentor so successful in his later role as Dana-Farber's leader.

"He was extremely considerate of people and had sensitivity for their needs," says Schlossman, also a past Baruj Benacerraf Professor of Medicine at HMS. "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."

Baruj Benacerraf, MDIn 1997, Benacerraf (third from right) joined other Dana-Farber leaders in marking the Institute's 50th birthday 

Throughout his eventful life, Benacerraf had a loving family supporting him. He met his beloved wife of 68 years, Annette Dreyfus, when they were both students at Columbia 70 years ago. Annette, who passed away June 3, was the niece of another Nobel laureate (French biologist Jacques Lucien Monod, PhD) and was almost always by Benacerraf's side at symposia and other events in recent years as a longtime member of the Friends of Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.

"My father was a role model and anchor for my personal and professional life," says their only child, Beryl Benacerraf, MD, who followed in her father's footsteps as a professor of radiology and OB GYN at HMS. Her husband, Peter Libby, MD, is the Mallinckrodt Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School and Chief of Cardiovascular Medicine at Brigham and Women's Hospital.

Benacerraf also made a deep impact on his two grandchildren, Brigitte and Oliver Libby. Brigitte Libby, visiting assistant professor of classics at Amherst College, says, "My grandfather was as proud of his achievements as a teacher and mentor of young scientists as he was of his personal accomplishments in research. He took enormous pride in what he often referred to as his 'intellectual children and grandchildren' who form a community of scientists spread around the world."

For Oliver Libby, managing director of Hatzimemos Partners LLC, a strategy firm, and co-founder and Chair of The Resolution Project, a non-profit organization, "My grandfather epitomized the term 'renaissance man' — he was a lover of family, books, humor, music, art, and learning, and a leader in science, medicine, administration, and business. He was a builder and a teacher — a man who left both people and organizations stronger for their relationship with him. He lived by the principles of reason and the search for truth. His motto was per aspera ad astra — through hard work and challenges, to the stars. My grandfather was capable of both extraordinary charisma and leadership, and also of a tender, playful, and caring nature."

In addition to his daughter, son-in-law, and grandchildren, Benacerraf leaves his brother Paul Benacerraf, James S. McDonnell Distinguished University Professor of Philosophy, Emeritus at Princeton University, where he made contributions to the philosophy of mathematics and served as provost. Service arrangements have yet to be made.

"Baruj Benacerraf was a congenital leader," says Dana-Farber President Emeritus David G. Nathan, MD. "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."

His name — and legacy — lives on

The legacy of Baruj Benacerraf, MD, as a mentor to physicians and scientists and a catalyst of Dana-Farber's growth is commemorated in the many programs and facilities at the Institute and Harvard Medical School that bear his name. In keeping with Benacerraf's commitment to research and the training of young investigators, the fellowships, donor giving society, physical spaces, and other programs named for him all support education and scientific advancement.

Among these are:

The Benacerraf Fellowship: Established in 1991 in recognition of Benacerraf's 10th anniversary as president of the Institute, the two-year fellowship supports clinical and basic science fellows in Benacerraf's specialty, immunology, at Dana-Farber.

The Baruj Benacerraf Professorship: First held by Dana-Farber immunologist Stuart Schlossman, MD, who retired in 2006, this professorship started in 1990 and is now held by Harvey Cantor, MD, chair of the Institute's Department of Cancer Immunology and AIDS. Endowed Harvard professorships, of which there are 13 at Dana-Farber, are the highest honor that can be awarded to a professor.

The Baruj Benacerraf Lecture in Immunology: Made possible by an endowment from colleagues, students, and friends in recognition of Benacerraf's contributions to Immunology and successful efforts at initiating the first degree-granting graduate program at Harvard Medical School — the Program in Immunology — in 1971. This annual lecture, established in 1994, has featured world-renowned immunologists, including Nobel Laureates Rolf Zinkernagel and David Baltimore.

The Benacerraf Society at Dana-Farber: This group, created in 2008, recognizes the contributions of Dana-Farber donors who have made single financial commitments of $100,000 – $999,999 to the Institute. The inaugural group included 276 members.

Benacerraf Library and Reading Room: Located on the third floor of the Richard A. and Susan F. Smith Research Laboratories, the library provides the Dana-Farber community with access to books, journals, and databases. The adjacent Benacerraf Reading Room includes comfortable reading chairs and houses Benacerraf's scientific and personal papers, Nobel Prize memorabilia, and his many other honors and awards.

For more on Dr. Benacerraf's work, see the 2010 Spring/Summer Paths of Progress article Setting a New Standard: How Baruj Benacerraf Turned Modern Immunology on Its Head. 

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