Longtime Faculty Member, Expert in Effects of Radiation on DNA, Dies

May. 13, 2012
William A. Bernhard on a recent trip to Bhutan

William A. Bernhard, Ph.D., a faculty member of the University of Rochester Medical Center for more than 40 years and an internationally known expert on the effects of ionizing radiation on the chemical structure of DNA, died May 9 at his home in Mendon, N.Y., after a brief illness.

Dr. Bernhard, a professor of Biochemistry and Biophysics, had a rapidly progressing neurological motor system disease, according to his family. He was 69.

“Bill was a biophysicist of the highest order, working at the forefront of understanding how radiation damages our genetic material. His unique command of both the biological and physical aspects of radiation damage earned him the respect and recognition of colleagues worldwide,” said Jeffrey J. Hayes, Ph.D., chair of the Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics. “The longevity of his research program, funded by the National Cancer Institute for 37 consecutive years, and the successful careers of his many trainees are testaments to the consistent high quality of his work, the high regard his peers, and his commitment to training future scientists. Bill also was a wonderful person and colleague.”

Dr. Bernhard, who earned his master’s and doctoral degrees at Penn State University, joined the faculty as an assistant professor in 1970 and was appointed professor of Biophysics in 1985. He served as associate chair or co-chair of the Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics from 1996 to 1998.

His renowned research program has focused on understanding the physical and chemical processes by which radiation affects biomolecules, especially DNA. His results have helped guide industrial and government policies regarding radiation risk assessment and have provided critical details to predict the biological consequences of radiation and understand DNA damage mitigation and repair processes.

From 1996 to 2000, Dr. Bernard served in the top offices, including president, of the Radiation Research Society, a major national organization in the field. He was chair of the Gordon Research Conference on Radiation Chemistry, which is scheduled for later this year.

“Bill was an outstanding physicist and he proved it in multiple ways,” said George Kimmich, Ph.D., professor emeritus of Biochemistry and a longtime friend of Dr. Bernhard. “But beyond his ability as a physicist and beyond the attention his results garnered, he was a gentle man in every sense of the word.”

In the last year of his life before his illness, Dr. Bernhard finished the Alpe d'Huez triathlon in France, earned the title of oldest finisher of the SavageMan half-ironman in Maryland, and took a three-week Himalayan trek in Bhutan, numerous trips with his wife and skiing days with his children and grandsons. “He said a number of times that if a person could script his last year of life, his was perfect,” his daughter, Mandy Kittelberger, said.

In spite of his illness, Dr. Bernhard remained active in his research lab and program, including holding a lab meeting at his home four days before his death.

“He strongly believed radiation biophysics and chemistry are addressing critical foundations in science and through the last days of his life he worried about erosion of support for basic research and pursuit of fundamental understanding in these areas,” his daughter said.

In addition to his daughter, he is survived by his wife of 46 years, Patricia Bernhard, his son Casey Bernhard, and five grandchildren.

A memorial service is being planned. Contributions in memory of Dr. Bernhard can be made to the William Bernhard Biophysics Research and Mentorship Fund in care of Kathy Votaw, Executive Director, Radiation Research Society, P.O. Box 7050, Lawrence, KS 66044-8897.