Reflections on a Discovery

In 1976, Baruch S. Blumberg won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his work discovering and creating a vaccine for the Hepatitis B virus. A few years prior to the awarding of the Nobel Prize, he had started to reflect on his clinical research career and the methodology at the heart of scientific research.

This photograph shows Dr. Blumberg standing in his office in front of the History of Australia Antigen hypothesis flow chart.

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Blumberg in office with History of Australia Antigen chart.

Influenced by Philosophy of Science

Dr. Blumberg first sat down to write an account of his journey in science during the summer of 1973 while serving as a senior fellow at his Alma mater, Balliol College in Oxford. He reflected on his convictions regarding the “continuity of scientific effort”, the formulation of hypotheses, and the dangers of post-hoc reasoning. Blumberg cited Karl Popper, a philosopher of science, and Jacob Bronowski, a historian of science, as primary influences that shaped his scientific world view.

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Blumberg journal excerpt discussing philosophical influences.

Outlining the Scientific Process

The next step for Dr. Blumberg was to sketch out a framework for the flow of scientific research. He drew on the intellectual foundations provided by the works of Popper and Bronowski and designed a flowchart showing the causal relationships between observation, hypothesis formulation, study (or experiment) design, and the new observations that resulted from the experiment. About a decade later, Dr. Blumberg rather prosaically referred to this as a never ending process:

“Science is at once a problem-solving and problem-creating process. Each time a question is answered (a hypothesis effectively tested), it raises additional questions that in turn are answered and produce another generation of questions. The process may be infinite.“
[Daedalus Effect. Annals of Internal Medicine. Vol. 102, No. 3. March 1985. Page 391.]
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A hand-drawn graphic of the hypothesis flowchart design.

A Hypothetico-Deductive Framework

The path to scientific discovery is rarely linear and often circuitous. Hypotheses and experiments will lead in many different directions with many paths of inquiry, not all of them fruitful. Dr. Blumberg endeavored to retrace the steps of his research project and show the expansive and iterative process based on the flowchart structure he designed; he referred to this as a “hypothetico-deductive framework”. Blumberg also emphasized the importance of “designing experiments (observations) to obtain unexpected results” as the unexpected is often the most significant.

This excerpt, from the journals of Dr. Blumberg, describes the structure of the hypothesis flow chart.

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Blumberg journal excerpt describing hypothesis flow chart structure.

Retracing His Steps

Baruch Blumberg spent the summer of 1950 working at a clinic in the small mining town of Moengo, Suriname, as part of his medical school curriculum at the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons. While there he observed markedly different responses to diseases (in particular filariasis) among the various ethnic groups that lived in the area. This initial spark led to the general observation with which the hypothesis flow chart begins: “There are many inherited protein variants in serum”. From this first observation a hypothesis was formulated: “Transfused Patients will develop antibodies against proteins they have not inherited.” Then a study or experiment was designed: “Test sera of transfused patients against panel of normal (diseased) persons.” The results of the study or experiment then produce any number of new observations from which the process begins anew.

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Blumberg journal excerpt showing portion of History of Australia Antigen chart.

Challenges to a New Discovery and the Influence of Thomas Kuhn

New discoveries do not always have a smooth path to wider acceptance. Dr. Blumberg noted in his journals how the unexpected outcomes of an experiment are often the most exciting and important. However, seeking the unexpected can result in a challenge to the foundations of an established order. He wrote a letter to the philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn in 1980 in which he discussed how the processes of a scientific revolution and paradigm shift (Kuhn’s theory of the scientific process put forth in his book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions) played out during the Hepatitis B project.

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Letter from Blumberg to Kuhn.

A Complicated Relationship

Blumberg continued his reflections on the process of scientific discovery through the course material of classes he taught at the University of Pennsylvania and Stanford in the later decades of his career. He did not consider himself to be included in the ranks of philosophers or historians despite citing philosophers and historians of science as significant influences and taking a decidedly philosophical approach in his thought processes. Instead, Blumberg preferred to be in the realm of the practical and was intensely focused on how science “was actually done”, believing “philosophy [of science] is taken to mean science as it should be done.”

This excerpt from the syllabus of a course on The Nature of Scientific Inquiry in Biological Sciences, taught by Dr. Blumberg at the University of Pennsylvania in 1985, summarizes his thoughts on scientific methodology.

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Excerpt from course syllabus.

How Science was Actually Done

Dr. Blumberg had a complex relationship with the philosophy of science, dabbling in theory but always remaining the clinical researcher. He was deeply interested in the real life examples of how scientific research was conducted, a view from the trenches. Whenever possible he incorporated biographical materials into his courses and invited accomplished scientists, such as Arthur Kornberg (biological synthesis of DNA) and James D. Watson (double helix of DNA), to share their stories of how science was actually done.

In this letter, Dr. Blumberg invites Kornberg, a fellow Nobel Laureate, to speak for a course titled The Process of Discovery in Biology and Medicine at Stanford University in 1998.

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Letter from Blumberg to Kornberg.

A Life of Science

This gallery aimed to provide a brief glimpse into the mind and thought processes of one of the great scientific minds of the second half of the 20th century. The discovery of Hepatitis B and creation of a vaccine helped to greatly reduce the prevalence of Hepatitis B around the globe. Some consider the vaccine to be one of the first effective cancer preventative drugs to be developed as Hepatitis B can lead to liver cancer. The galleries below explore a few more elements of the life of Baruch S. Blumberg.

Image of Blumberg with History of Australia Antigen chart.


Field work was an integral part of Dr. Blumberg's research career. The images below showcase the globetrotting nature of his research related travels.

Nobel Prize

Baruch S. Blumberg won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1976 for his work on the Hepatitis B Virus. This gallery is a collection of images related to the Nobel Prize and the award ceremony.


Images from Dr. Blumberg's career serving in administrative positions with the National Institutes of Health, Fox Chase Cancer Center, Balliol College, NASA Astrobiology Institute, and American Philosophical Society.