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Baruj Benacerraf

(1920 - 2011)

Baruj Benacerraf was born on October 29, 1920, in Caracas, Venezuela. Benacerraf enrolled in the undergraduate studies at Columbia University, obtaining a Bachelor of Science Degree in 1942. Following Columbia, he enrolled in the Medical College of Virginia in Richmond. A year later, he was drafted into the U.S. Army. For a year in 1945, Benacerraf interned at Queens General Hospital in New York. In 1946, he was commissioned First Lieutenant in the U.S. Army Medical Corps and sent to Germany; he was discharged in 1947.

After the war, he was granted a Fellowship at the Neurological Institute of Columbia University School of Physicians and Surgeons. From 1950 to 1956, Benacerraf moved with his family to Paris to take a position in Bernard Halpern's laboratory at the Broussais Hospital. In 1956, he returned to the United States as Assistant Professor of Pathology at New York University School of Medicine. By 1961, Benacerraf had advanced to Professor of Pathology at New York University. In 1968, he moved to Bethesda, Maryland to assume Directorship of the Laboratory of Immunology of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease. Finally in 1970, Benacerraf he accepted the Chair of Pathology at Harvard Medical School.

He began studies of allergies in 1948, and discovered the Ir (immune response) genes that govern transplant rejection (1960s). In 1972 he demonstrated the existence of T and B lymphocytes.

He shared the 1980 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for the "discovery of the Major histocompatibility complex genes which encode cell surface molecules important for the immune system's distinction between self and non-self."

Honorary Societies

· President of the American Association of Immunologists (1973)
· President of the American Society for Experimental Biology and medicine (1974)
· President of the International Union of Immunological Societies (1980)
· American Academy of Arts and Sciences (1972)
· National Academy of Science, U.S.A. (1973)
· President of the Sidney Farber Cancer Institute (1980)

The following press release from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences describes Benacerraf's work:

The surface of all body cells is unique in every individual. This unique character is detemined by genes that regulate the formation of specific protein-carbohydrate complexes (MHC) - the histocompatibility antigens, or H antigens - found on the cell membrane. These complexes derive their name (histo denotes a relationship to tissue) from the fact they define the capacity of a body tissue to exist in intimate contact with another body tissue. H antigens determine the interaction among the multitude of different cells responsible for the body's immunological reactions. Knowledge of the genetic regulation of the body's immune response makes it possible to explain why different individuals have different capabilities of defending themselves against infections and why a cancer cell is eliminated in some cases and enabled to grow into a tumor in others. The genes that are important in this connection have been demonstrated primarily in studies on mice and humans, but they are found in all vertebrates. Knowledge of H antigens is of great practical importance, for example, in tissue transplantation (the transfer of tissues from one individual to another) and for understanding the relationship between the genetic constitution and disease. Thus, it has been shown that certain H antigens predispose certain individuals to certain diseases.

Baruj Benacerraf showed that genetic factors intimately related to the genes that determine an individual's unique constitution of H antigens actually regulate the interaction among the various cells belonging to the immunological system and are thereby important to the strength of an immunological reaction.

Sources:, Nobel Prize Autobiograpy