The family of the late Dr. Baruch Blumberg has donated several dozen of his personal journals to the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia.
Blumberg is credited with discovering hepatitis B. He helped develop a vaccine that has prevented cancer and saved millions of lives, and he won a Nobel Prize in 1976. Blumberg, who spent most of his working life in Philadelphia, was a former president of the Philosophical Society and lived nearby.
Leading scientists still view Blumberg’s work as one of the most important scientific achievements of the 20th century. Yet, Blumberg never set out to study hepatitis. He wanted to understand why some people were more prone to certain diseases.
His approach to science and the world, as documented in his personal journals and research papers, underscores an essential part of the road to scientific discovery, say his family and colleagues.
In 1965, Blumberg published a paper in JAMA about a mysterious antigen he had identified in leukemia patients. Through more research and piecing together additional clues, he later realized it was a marker for hepatitis B.
“It’s an extraordinary [the 1965 JAMA] paper. It should be required reading for everyone who goes into science,” said Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease. “He wasn’t looking for hepatitis when he discovered the Australian antigen. Hepatitis wasn’t even on his radar. He was looking for something else.”
Fauci was in Philadelphia Thursday evening, as a featured speaker at the Philosophical Society’s event honoring Blumberg.
“This is a classic example of ‘believe your data’ even if you don’t understand it. If you have confidence in your data, it’s trying to tell you something,” Fauci said, pointing to his own marked-up and highlighted printout of the paper. “Don’t have a closed mind. Don’t presume you know what the explanation is. Leave completely open the possibility of the explanation.”
An extended WHYY interview with Fauci on the story behind Blumberg’s discovery can be heard here.
Blumberg might have been considered a “natural philosopher” centuries back. He took an anthropological approach to studying medicine. The keenly observant ways he went about understanding and analyzing the world around him can also be seen in his personal accounts, according New York Times CEO Mark Thompson, who is Blumberg’s son-in-law.
“Everything was recorded,” said Thompson. “In a weird way, the kind of observation and the note taking and the recording of everything … I think it tells you a lot of about his approach to science.”
Blumberg kept meticulous notes of movies he saw, family events, and conversations with fellow scientists. He included photos and other mementos in them.
Now, about 70 of those journals will join the Philosophical Society’s collection of Blumberg’s scientific papers.