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Venezuelan-born Baruj (Baruch) Benacerraf, who shared the 1980 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his research into the role of genes in the human immune system, died in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts on this date in 2011. Benacerraf’s discoveries helped explain why some people are able to resist auto-immune diseases (multiple sclerosis, lupus, and others) while others succumb; his specific contribution was the discovery of a control group of genes, which he called “immune response genes” (now called the “major histocompatibility complex”) — a discovery that represented “an intellectual leap in the early 1960s,” according to the New York Times obituary. Benacerraf’s father was a Moroccan textile dealer, his mother an Algerian homemaker, and he spent much of his childhood in Paris, until the Nazi invasion, when the family fled to New York. He had faculty appointments at Columbia University and New York University before becoming chair of the department of pathology at Harvard Medical School in 1969. More than thirty genes have by now been discovered in the major histocompatibility complex; they hold the keys to future breakthroughs in the treatment of multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, and other diseases.
“I am . . . particularly indebted to my many students and associates who have contributed so much to our common goal and whom I hold responsible in the largest measure for my achievements.” —Dr. Baruj Benacerraf