Jew of the Week: Baruch Blumberg

Hepatitis B and The First Cancer Vaccine

Baruch Samuel “Barry” Blumberg

Baruch Samuel Blumberg (1925-2011) was born to an Orthodox Jewish family in Brooklyn. He studied at the Yeshiva of Flatbush, and then at Far Rockaway High School in Queens (which was also attended by fellow prominent scientist and former Jew of the Week Richard Feynman). After serving in the US Navy during World War II (attaining the rank of commanding officer), Blumberg studied math and medicine at Columbia University. He earned his MD in 1951, worked as a doctor for several years, then enrolled at Oxford University to do a PhD in biochemistry. Decades later, he would be elected Master of Oxford’s prestigious Balliol College (founded all the way back in 1263), making him the first American and the first scientist to hold the title. In the 1960s, Blumberg discovered the hepatitis B antigen, and soon showed how the virus could cause liver cancer. His team began working on a diagnostic test and a vaccine, and successfully produced both. Although Blumberg had a patent on the vaccine, he gave it away freely to save as many lives as possible. (One thirty-year follow up study showed that the vaccine reduced infection from 20% to 2% of the population, and liver cancer deaths by as much as 90%. Some have therefore called it the first cancer vaccine.) Blumberg was awarded the 1976 Nobel Prize in Medicine for his work with hepatitis B, and his “discoveries concerning new mechanisms for the origin and dissemination of infectious diseases.” In 1992, he co-founded the Hepatitis B Foundation, dedicated to helping people living with the disease, and funding research for a cure. Meanwhile, Blumberg taught medicine and anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania. Incredibly, he also directed NASA’s Astrobiology Institute, was president of the American Philosophical Society, and a distinguished scholar advising the Scientific and Medical Advisory Board, as well as the Library of Congress. He had worked for the National Institutes of Health, and The Institute for Cancer Research. Blumberg remained Torah-observant throughout his life, and rarely missed his weekly Talmud class. He credited his Jewish studies as a youth for sharpening his mind and allowing him to excel in academia, and once said that he was drawn to medicine because of the ancient Talmudic statement that “if you save a single life, you save the whole world.” Fittingly, it has been said that Blumberg “prevented more cancer deaths than any person who’s ever lived.”

Words of the Week

Science gets the age of rocks, and religion the rock of ages; science studies how the heavens go, religion how we go to heaven.
– Renowned evolutionary bologist Stephen J. Gould

Jews of the Week: Idelsohn and Nathanson

Hava Nagila

Abraham Tzvi Idelsohn (1882-1938) was born in Latvia to a religious Jewish family. He studied to be a synagogue cantor. At 27, he made aliyah to Israel and worked as a musician and composer. In 1919, he opened a Jewish music school. A few years later, he left for Ohio where he served as professor of Jewish music at Hebrew Union College, the major seminary of Reform Judaism. Between 1914 and 1932 he published his ten-volume magnum opus, Thesaurus of Hebrew Oriental Melodies. Many consider him “the father of Jewish musicology”. His most famous melody is undoubtedly ‘Hava Nagila’. In December of 1917, British army general Edmund Allenby defeated the Ottomans and conquered the Holy Land for Great Britain. The Jews of Israel were elated, and celebrated the general’s arrival in Jerusalem. They asked Idelsohn to compose a song for the special occasion. Idelsohn remembered an old happy tune he had adapted from a Hasidic niggun. The song was a hit. A few years later, he asked his music class to write words for the song.

A young Moshe Nathanson (1899-1981) was in that class, and wrote a couple of simple lines based on Scriptural verses from Psalm 118. The rest is history. Nathanson was born in Jerusalem, the son of a rabbi. In 1922 he moved to Canada and double-majored in law and music at McGill University. He ended up studying at what is now the prestigious Julliard School of Music in New York. From there, he was hired to be the cantor of the first Reconstructionist Synagogue, and served in that role for the next 48 years. He wrote an important four-volume tome of liturgical songs. Nathanson also spent 10 years broadcasting Jewish music on American airwaves (“Voice of Jerusalem”) and dedicated much of his life to promoting Jewish folk music. Today, Nathanson’s and Idelsohn’s ‘Hava Nagila’ is the most recognizable Jewish/Hebrew song in the world, and a staple of every bar mitzvah and wedding. There is even a full-length documentary about it, called Hava Nagila (The Movie). This past year marked the song’s centennial anniversary.

Three Reasons to be Religious

Words of the Week

One who cannot survive bad times cannot see good times.
– Hasidic proverb

General Allenby’s December 1917 proclamation to the people of Jerusalem.