Baruj Benacerraf

benacerraf_postcardBaruj Benacerraf, Nobel Laureate Life Science.

(Autobiography) I was born in Caracas, Venezuela, on October 29, 1920 of Spanish-Jewish ancestry. My father, a self-made business man, was a textile merchant and importer. He was born in Spanish Morocco, whereas my mother was born and raised in French Algeria and brought up in the French culture. When I was five years old, my family moved to Paris where we resided until 1939. My primary and secondary education was in French which had a lasting influence on my life. The second World War caused our return to Venezuela, where my father continued to have a thriving business. It was decided that I should pursue my education in the United States, and we moved to New York in 1940. I registered at Columbia University in the School of General Studies, and graduated with a Bachelor of Science Degree in 1942, having also completed the pre-medical requisites for admission to Medical School. By that time, I had elected to study biology and medicine, instead of going into the family business, as my father would have wanted. I did not realize, however, that admission to Medical School was a formidable undertaking for someone with my ethnic and foreign background in the United States of 1942. In spite of an excellent academic record at Columbia, I was refused admission by the numerous medical schools I applied to and would have found it impossible to study medicine except for the kindness and support of George W. Bakeman, father of a close friend, who was then Assistant to the President of the Medical College of Virginia in Richmond. Learning of my difficulties, Mr. Bakeman arranged for me to be interviewed and considered for one of the two remaining places in the Freshman class. I was accepted and began my medical studies in July 1942. While in medical school, I was drafted into the U.S. Army with the other medical students, as part of the wartime training program, and naturalized American citizen in 1943. I greatly enjoyed my medical studies, which at the Medical College of Virginia were very clinically oriented. I received what I considered to be an excellent medical education in the relatively short time of three war years. This busy time was rendered very happy by my marriage in 1943 to Annette Dreyfus, a French student, also a refugee from Paris, whom I had met at Columbia University. I trained as an intern at Queens General Hospital in New York City in 1945 and was commissioned First Lieutenant in the U.S. Army Medical Corps in 1946. After the usual six weeks of basic training at Fort Sam Houston, Texas, I was shipped to Germany with several thousand other physicians. I was happy to be assigned to France, first in Paris, then in Nancy, where my wife had joined me.

In 1970, Dean Robert Ebert offered me the Chair of Pathology at Harvard Medical School. I moved to Harvard because I missed the University environment and more particularly the stimulating interaction with the eager, enthusiastic, and unprejudiced young minds of the students and fellows. At Robert Ebert’s request, we initiated an interdepartmental immunology graduate program at Harvard Medical School which has developed very successfully under the stewardship of my colleague, Emile Unanue. At Harvard, I have continued my work on immune response genes and their role in the regulation of specific immunity with David Katz, Martin Dorf, Judith Kapp, Carl Pierce, Ronald Germain and Mark Greene. We also determined the role of immune response genes in the control of immune suppression phenomena with the help of Patrice Debré, Judith Kapp, and Carl Waltenbaugh; we analyzed the specificity of cytolytic T lymphocyte in relation to Ir gene function with Steven Burakoff and Robert Finberg and demonstrated how alloreactivity arises as a consequence of the commitment of T lymphocytes to recognize antigen in the context of autologous MHC gene products.