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Fritz Bach; Harvard doctor pioneered marrow matching

Dr. Fritz Bach in 1991. Dr. Fritz Bach in 1991.
By Bryan Marquard
Globe Staff / August 18, 2011

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Cultivating laboratories with the deftness of a master gardener, Dr. Fritz Bach brought to full flowering a half-century of scientific concepts, chief among them a cellular test he developed that led to the first successful bone marrow transplants matching donors and recipients.

His discovery formed the foundation for decades of transplants that extended the lives of hundreds of thousands worldwide, but it was hardly the only achievement that reached beyond his labs in Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Cambridge.

“It was generally accepted that he was a true genius, a uniquely talented individual, and one of the most intelligent persons anyone could ever hope to encounter,’’ Dr. Simon C. Robson, a Harvard Medical School professor, wrote in a tribute. “He was a visionary who was brilliant at the Nobel level, innovative, and highly creative. He was renowned for his legendary ability to spot and develop big ideas amongst the deluge of data and discoveries his several laboratories generated and made over the decades.’’

Dr. Bach, a pioneer in transplant research who retired as the Lewis Thomas Distinguished Professor at Harvard Medical School, died of cardiac arrest Sunday in his Manchester-by-the-Sea home. He was 77.

In the field of bone marrow transplants, “I think it would be fair to say he really was one of the early giants in the field,’’ said Dr. Paul Sondel, head of the division of pediatric hematology oncology at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, who was a former student and colleague of Dr. Bach’s.

At a time when bone marrow transplants were failing, “Fritz had the foresight to try to set up a minitransplant in a test tube,’’ Sondel said. “He took cells from the patient who needed a transplant and cells from a potential donor and mixed them together, and showed that they reacted to one another in a similar way to how you would expect them to react in the transplant setting.’’

Dr. Bach called his technique the mixed leukocyte culture, or MLC, which physicians used to select the most compatible relatives of patients to be transplant donors. In the late 1960s, he used the technique to select a donor for the first successful clinical bone marrow transplants, which Dr. Bach and Dr. Robert A. Good in Minnesota described in twin articles for the science journal The Lancet.

“Now, tens of thousands are done worldwide each year,’’ Sondel said. “There are probably hundreds of thousands of individuals alive today because of successful bone marrow transplants. It all really happened because of Fritz Bach.’’

Dr. Bach’s test led to further research on how the human immune system responds to the major histocompatibility complex, a system of surface proteins on cells that define each person’s unique immunity. Researchers are still using his work to more fully understand immune reactions of all types, including for transplant rejections, Sondel said.

In 1998, Dr. Bach also became a public voice of caution, urging the scientific community to include the public in decisions about the use of animal cells and organs in humans.

Concerned about possible ramifications, which could include introducing serious diseases to humanity, he joined other scientists who called for a moratorium on using pig cells and organs to treat people until a public commission could be created to gauge the dangers.

“The public needs to be not only educated but must participate in this decision,’’ he said at a meeting called by the US Public Health Service in January 1998. “I don’t think we scientists have the right to make this decision for the public.’’

Dr. Peter Bach, a researcher at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City, said his father took “his senior statesman role and used that to try and get people to slow down and worry about these larger risks.’’

Born in Vienna, Fritz H. Bach was the younger of two sons and escaped Austria at the beginning of World War II when he went to live in Bath, England, before turning 5. His maternal grandparents perished in the Holocaust.

His family immigrated to Burlington, Vt., where he graduated from Burlington High School before attending Harvard as a scholarship student, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in 1955.

At Harvard Medical School, from which he graduated in 1960, he became interested in immunology and genetics. After postdoctoral studies, he taught at the University of Wisconsin and led a research team from 1965 to 1980. He then taught and conducted research at the University of Minnesota until returning to Harvard to teach in 1990.

“The dominant thing in his life was the quest for new knowledge and, through that knowledge, changing people’s lives,’’ his son said. “I think there are some people who are driven by curiosity. Where other people see an answer, they see more questions, and I think that was true of my father.’’

Dr. Bach’s two marriages ended in divorce. He had three children with Marilyn Brenner Bach of St. Paul, whom he married in 1958; three children with Jeanne Gose of Manchester-by-the-Sea, whom he married in 1983; and he noted in the 55th anniversary report of his Harvard class that he had “active and wonderful relationships with both.’’

He lived for many years in Manchester-by-the-Sea and wrote in the same recollections that his “house is on a beach on the Atlantic Ocean, and the views and sounds of the ocean save me from what would otherwise likely be the bills of a full-time psychiatrist.’’

Leo Otterbein, an associate professor at Harvard Medical School, said that while Dr. Bach’s contributions “more or less changed immunology as we know it,’’ he also “was probably the most charismatic individual I think I’ve ever met, just a fun person to be around and always entertaining.’’

Each summer, Dr. Bach held a party at his oceanside house and invited everyone from faculty to those who tended the cages in his laboratory, conversing easily with all his guests.

“He knew how to work with people from any walk of life,’’ Otterbein said, “from somebody emptying your trash can to a Nobel Prize winner.’’

In addition to his son and former wives, Dr. Bach leaves two other children from his first marriage, David of New York City and Wendy of Knoxville, Tenn.; three children from his second marriage, Kathryn of Cambridge, and Erika and Dana, both of Manchester-by-the-Sea; and four grandchildren.

A memorial service will be held at 2 p.m. today in Stanetsky-Hymanson Memorial Chapel in Salem.

“He was a passionate, tireless, enthusiastic teacher who would spend every waking minute dreaming and hypothesizing the mechanisms of how the immune system was working,’’ Sondel said. “One could go to lunch with him or take a bike ride with him and somehow in the conversation, he would describe the experiment he was planning for next week, and he always knew that was the one that would be the most important. The most exciting thing in his life was always next week’s experiment.’’

Bryan Marquard can be reached at bmarquard@globe.com.