Baruj Benacerraf’s father had hoped he would one day take over the family textile business in Caracas, Venezuela, where Benacerraf was born in 1920, but fate had other plans. As a child with bronchial asthma, Benacerraf held a lifelong fascination with immunology, and eventually unraveled the genetic codes that determine why certain individuals contract diseases while others do not.
Benacerraf bounced between Venezuela, France and the United States during his childhood and early professional life, thanks to a combination of war, business interests and a struggle — both as an immigrant and a Jew — to establish a career. As a professor at New York University in the 1960s, Benacerraf injected a number of guinea pigs with a foreign substance, discovering that the immune systems in nearly half of the animals failed to respond. He later pinpointed the genetic variation responsible, concluding that the vulnerabilities were hereditary. The knowledge opened the door for a wave of new genetic epiphanies, and allowed doctors to better understand why organ transplants fail in certain patients.
By Lauren Clason