BARUJ BENACERRAF [1920-2011] focused his research on understanding the genetic reasons for allergies and other diseases impacting immunity. Born in Caracas, Venezuela of Spanish-Jewish ancestry he spent much of his childhood in France. His father was a textile merchant and importer, born in Spanish Morocco while his mother was born and raised in French Algeria. At five years old, his family moved to Paris, and the primary and secondary education Baruj had in France influenced his life. During the second World War the family returned to Venezuela, then moved to New York in 1940 so Bencacerraf could pursue his education in the U.S.

He graduated from Columbia University in 1942 determined to pursue biology and medicine. Getting into Medical School wasn’t easy given his ethnic and foreign background despite an exceptional academic record at Columbia. After several rejections, the father of a close friend who worked at the Medical College of Virginia in Richmond helped Baruj gain admission. In school, he was drafted into the Army as part of the wartime training program, and so became a naturalized American citizen in 1943. He completed his studies, married and then trained as an intern at Queens General Hospital in New York City.

Baruj was commissioned as a First Lieutenant in the U.S. Army Medical Corps and was shipped to Germany with other doctors.  Assigned to France, Benacerraf practiced community medicine. After discharge he chose to pursue medical research focused on immunology. Baruj had struggled with bronchial asthma as a child and was fascinated by immunity issues. He went to work at the Neurological Institute at Columbia University, then moved to Paris in 1949 to work with a young Italian scientist. Working as a team the pursued the study of cells involved in the immune response. He returned to the United States to open his own laboratory and secure research support. He began teaching research fellows and students and found this very rewarding. Benacerraf began studies in immunogenetics and was awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine. His discovery of a complex process would lead to the understanding of how genes determine immune responses. In 1970, Baruj became the Chair of Pathology at Harvard Medical School. His work was supported by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and the National Cancer Institute. Baruj Benacerraf died in 2011 of pneumonia but his discoveries remain true to this day.

Portrait of Baruj for Bravo! Poems about Amazing Hispanics by Margarita Engle