Founding Chair of Community and Preventive Medicine Dies

July 13, 2006

Robert Berg, M.D., founding chair of the University of Rochester’s Department of Community and Preventive Medicine and a friend of School of Medicine and Dentistry students for almost 50 years, died at Highland Hospital on Tuesday, July 11. Dr. Berg, a Brighton resident, was 87.

During his tenure, Dr. Berg established the University’s Community and Preventive Medicine program as a national leader. The Medical Center’s decision to adopt community health as one of its four missions can be directly traced to him. In 1968, he published a community survey of the health status and service needs of the elderly residents of Monroe County. This study served as a model nationally and internationally as communities recognized the need to finance and deliver health services to growing populations of the elderly.

A teacher at heart, Dr. Berg was much beloved by medical students, faculty and staff, many of whom continued to help him in recent years as his health failed. In spite of his age and frailty, he embarked on research projects and was hoping to take part in a Mastering Medical Information course next month.

“Bob Berg’s life was filled with many achievements,” said Thomas A. Pearson, M.D., Ph.D., M.P.H., Albert D. Kaiser Professor and Chair of the Department of Community and Preventive Medicine. “But most of all I will miss his unwavering commitment to students and his magical ability to amuse, teach, and endear students, all at the same time.”

A memorial service for Dr. Berg will be held at 10 a.m. on Saturday July 29 at the Interfaith Chapel on the University's River Campus. A reception will follow the service in the Sarah Flaum Atrium of the Arthur Kornberg Medical Research Building at the Medical Center.

Daniel B. Ornt, M.D., a 1976 graduate of the School of Medicine who now is associate dean for clinical affairs at the School of Medicine at Case Western Reserve University, said Dr. Berg befriended more students than he could remember.

“It would be difficult to find them all,” said Ornt. “He took very seriously his role as advisor to students. He helped select specialty interests. He helped land a training program. He went way beyond the common level of advisor and friend.”

Bradford C. Berk, M.D., Ph.D., Chair of the Department of Medicine and CEO-elect of the University of Rochester Medical Center said: “Bob Berg had broad knowledge and vision, and a kindness about sharing those gifts that made him a role model for everyone from primary care to physician-scientists to geriatricians, and to me personally.”

Medical Center chief executive officer C. McCollister Evarts, M.D., called Dr. Berg a revered and respected faculty member and a national figure.

“He brought his keen wit and intellect to the Medical Center. He was always cognizant of his role as a mentor to students and residents,” Evarts said. “He truly was a citizen of the medical school.”

Robert J. Joynt, M.D., Ph.D., University Distinguished Professor and former Medical Center chief executive, also was an advisor to the administration of the School of Medicine and Strong Memorial Hospital.

“Bob was right there whenever you needed him. He was always ready to help,” Joynt said.

James Haley, M.D., a 1985 graduate of the School of Medicine, described Dr. Berg as “a great friend of medical students for decades.” Medical students, and often their parents, dined at his home. Many stayed at his house in the Adirondacks. He sometimes took students along on his international trips.

“He stayed connected to the medical students and was an advisor to generations of doctors,” said Haley, now the chair of the Department of Medicine for the Unity Health System in Rochester. Dr. Berg was Haley’s faculty advisor.

“He was not flamboyant and did not seek the spotlight,” said Haley, a clinical associate professor at the Medical Center. “His contributions to the Medical Center, to the School of Medicine and to his department are enormous.”

Dr. Berg, a native of Spokane, Washington, graduated from Harvard College in 1940 and Harvard Medical School in 1943. After serving his internship and residency at Massachusetts General Hospital, he was on active duty at the U.S. Navy Hospital in Chelsea, Mass. He then spent a year at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden. He returned to Massachusetts General as chief resident in medicine, and then was promoted to several positions at Harvard Medical School.

In 1958, Dr. Berg was recruited to the University to establish the Department of Community and Preventive Medicine. He became the first to hold the endowed position of Albert D. Kaiser Professor. A history of the Medical Center describes the recruitment of Dr. Berg and the formation of the department as an innovative move that was critically important in imprinting on the school’s teaching program a commitment to community health.

Dr. Berg and his colleagues played a significant role in the development of the Regional Medical Program, a cooperative community-wide effort to enhance the education of all health-care providers. They also helped build a network of community health centers.

After only two years at the University, Dr. Berg served for a year as acting administrator of Strong Memorial Hospital during a time of transition at the School of Medicine and the hospital. He later led an expanded department called the Department of Preventive, Family and Rehabilitation Medicine at the Medical Center. He also served as associate dean for planning in the School of Medicine. He retired as department chairman in 1984.

Dr. Berg was appointed as a chairman or member of several national and state boards and committees. He frequently spoke out on health care, costs and the limits of care. In 1975, he was one of five experts on a symposium panel in New York City that discussed disease prevention and “the illusion of immortality.” The panel, a collection of stars in their field put together by the American Health Foundation, also included: heart surgeon Michael De Bakey, M.D., psychoanalyst Rollo May, anthropologist Ashley Montagu and activist clergyman the Rev. William Sloane Coffin Jr.

In 1990, Dr. Berg headed an Institute of Medicine committee that issued a report called “The Second 50 Years” that found many of the disabilities of the elderly are preventable and criticized doctors and public health experts for writing off the older generation as being beyond help.

Dr. Berg’s wife, Florence Berg, died in 1985. He is survived by a daughter, Astri Cornett of Boxborough Mass., and a son, Erik C. Berg of Boise, Idaho, five grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

Contributions can be made to the Florence and Bob Berg Fund at the University of Rochester’s Memorial Art Gallery or the Bob Berg Endowed Fund in Community and Preventive Medicine. Send contributions to the University Advancement Office, Box 270032, Rochester, NY 14627-0032.

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