Dr. Blumberg had spent the latter part of his career helping NASA inaugurate its formal search for extraterrestrial life and clues about the origin of life on Earth. For Dr. Blumberg, who was trained a biochemist but became a leading scientist in the fields of virology, oncology and epidemiology, this new field was the next step in a long career of enviable breadth.
“Are we alone? How did life originate? What is life? And what is the future of human beings in space? Some of these are the questions people have been asking forever,” he told the New York Times in 2002. “Just in the last few decades we have the real possibility of answering them.”
He was best known for his work a half-century ago on hepatitis B, a virus that attacks the liver and can cause cirrhosis, cancer and death.
Dr. Blumberg did not set out to conquer the virus. He was interested, instead, in figuring out why some people are more vulnerable to getting sick than others. That simple question led him to farflung villages in Africa and the Arctic — and serendipitously to the discovery of hepatitis B in the mid-1960s.
His identification of the virus allowed for the near-immediate development of tests used to screen potential blood donors, greatly and immediately reducing the transmission of hepatitis B via blood transfusions.
In the 1970s, Dr. Blumberg and a colleague, Irving Millman, developed a hepatitis B vaccine. Since it became commercially available in 1982, more than 1 billion doses have been administered around the world. The chronic infection rate among children has plunged — from 15 percent in Taiwan and more than 10 percent in China, for example, to less than 1 percent in each country.
“I think it’s fair to say that Barry prevented more cancer deaths than any person who’s ever lived,” said Jonathan Chernoff, scientific director at the Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia, where Dr. Blumberg spent most of his professional life.
For “discoveries concerning new mechanisms for the origin and dissemination of infectious diseases,” Dr. Blumberg shared the 1976 Nobel Prize for Medicine with D. Carleton Gajdusek, who did groundbreaking research on kuru, an incurable and infectious degenerative neurological disorder.
Dr. Blumberg began his hepatitis work at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda during the 1950s. He joined Fox Chase in 1964 and served as associate director for clinical research and vice president for population oncology before holding the title of distinguished scientist in 1989.
From 1999 to 2002, he served as the first director of the NASA Astrobiology Institute at Ames, lending his formidable intellectual reputation to what had previously been considered fringe science.