Dr. Baruj Benacerraf, MCV Alumnus and Nobel Prize Winner, Dies
Cassie Williams Jones
University Public Affairs
Nobel Prize winner Baruj Benacerraf, M.D., a 1945 graduate of the Medical College of Virginia, which would later become the VCU School of Medicine, died of pneumonia last Tuesday in his home in Boston at 90.
Benacerraf found refuge and support at MCV. Upon completion of his undergraduate biology education at Columbia University, the Venezuelan native who excelled academically, applied to and was rejected from 25 medical schools, which he believed was a result of his ethnic and religious background. After an interview with the assistant to the president of MCV, secured through a family friend, Benacerraf was selected as one of the last two incoming freshmen at MCV in 1942.
He graduated in 1945, after completing his medical education in only three years. The curricula of medical schools at the time were expedited due to World War II. He served in the army after completing a year-long internship.
Once discharged from the military, Benacerraf chose to pursue research instead of clinical practice, starting a career that would see him serve as a physician, professor, scientist, researcher and even president and chief executive officer of a cancer institute.
In 1980, after years of research and study of the immune system, Benacerraf shared the Nobel Prize in medicine and physiology with Dr. George Snell of the United States and Dr. Jean Dausset of France. Their discoveries brought increased understanding of infection defenses and autoimmune disease risk factors in individuals. They also studied organ transplantation and the likelihood of success or rejection, resulting in safer transplant operations. Their work and findings have laid the foundation for great advances in the fields of genetics and immunology.
Benacerraf remained connected to VCU through the years, coming back to his alma mater for class reunions, special events and keeping in touch with peers. He once said, “I will always feel affection for MCV, and the people who helped me.”
Benacerraf’s remarkable legacy will long be remembered at VCU. He delivered the commencement address at the 1981 VCU commencement, where he received an honorary doctor of science degree from the university. He also was selected by VCU to become a Centennial Alumnus of the National Association of State Universities and Land Grant Colleges, one of 125 recipients nationwide. The VCU School of Medicine even named a medical society after him.
"Dr. Benacerraf was a scientific luminary whose seminal work on the major histocompatability complex created the scientific basis for successful tissue transplantation. Faculty at the Medical College of Virginia were among those who pioneered organ transplantation, bringing Dr. Benacerraf's scientific discoveries to clinical application,” said Jerome F. Strauss III, M.D., Ph.D., dean of the VCU School of Medicine. “Dr. Benacerraf was a long-time supporter of the School of Medicine and, to recognize his major contributions to medical science, in 2009 the School named one of its four learning societies in his honor."
He was preceded in death by his wife, Annette, two months ago. He is survived by a daughter, Dr. Beryl Benacerraf, a radiologist and professor at Harvard Medical School; a brother, Paul, a philosophy professor at Princeton University; and two grandchildren.