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Obituary: Barry Blumberg

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Although it was medicine for which he won his Nobel prize, Barry Blumberg was really an explorer. Growing up in Brooklyn, he dreamed of being Shackleton at the South Pole or Darwin on board the Beagle. His heroes were Lewis and Clark, the intrepid explorers of the new American continent, and the field-trip grants he founded in later life were named after them. Invited to China in 1977 to talk about his great discovery, a virus that caused hepatitis, and his greater invention, a vaccine to prevent it, he would slip out in the early mornings to run for hours through fields, farmyards or the just-stirring streets of Beijing. As master of Balliol College, Oxford from 1989-94—the first American to hold the post, and the first scientist—he would pedal out eagerly into the countryside, his burly frame well waterproofed against the English weather, to see what he might see.

On these trips he would have a vague plan A, a goal in view, for he had learned to appreciate planning during a wartime spell in the navy; but plans B and C might be good, too. Like Tristram Shandy, he preferred the apparently random and open-minded route. His scientific method was to gather huge amounts of data, with exuberant curiosity, in order to let some discovery surprise him. “Goal-oriented” institutions, such as the National Institutes of Health, found it hard to work with him, and he with them, but he would cheerfully decamp to freer places, such as the Institute for Cancer Research, which let him roam until relevance emerged from his roamings. “Expect the unexpected” was his motto—after Heraclitus, who said you could never step into the same river twice.
 
 

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