Much will be written about the University of Maryland School of Medicine, its faculty, and 17,000 graduates when the institution celebrates its 200th birthday in 2007. In addition to countless medical advances, the school has produced some of the state’s most colorful figures. Some were engaged in struggles worthy of best-selling novels. At least two settled disputes by fighting duels; others chose to do their battles in the courts. One fought—and I believe lost—a sterling reputation in the court of pubic opinion. As a result, a truly remarkable physician is not getting the recognition he richly deserves. This is the story of Edgar F. Berman, ’39: physician, surgeon, innovator, author, columnist, politician, maverick, and friend.

Edgar Berman, '39

Close friends: Hubert Humprhey and Edgar Berman jogging up to the microphone at a press conference
Close friends: Hubert Humprhey and Edgar Berman jogging up to the microphone at a press conference

Berman was a native Baltimorean, born August 6, 1919. He graduated from Baltimore City College at the age of 16 and entered the University of Maryland at College Park on a tennis scholarship. During his sophomore year, friends convinced him to take the medical entrance exam at Maryland, and his score rated first place. The young Berman began medical school before his 18th birthday and graduated in 1939 at the age of 20. His surgical residency, from 1939 to 1943, was at Baltimore’s Sinai, Lutheran, and Johns Hopkins hospitals.

 As World War II escalated, Berman volunteered and was commissioned a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy Medical Corps. He saw action on Guam, Saigon, and was in the second wave of attacks on Okinawa. From 1945 to 1946, he was part of the occupation forces with the 1st Marine Division where he was later elevated to director of Corps Staff Hospital in Peking. There he had the opportunity to meet Chiang Kai-shek as well as Mao Tse-tung.

Following the war, he returned home to begin his private surgical practice. While searching for an office location, he met Phoebe Rhea who was on the staff of a realty company. They married in 1952. Both loved adventure and the outdoors.

Between 1946 and 1962, Berman developed a very busy private practice but also found time to devote to research. He possessed a keen mind and a fearlessness that led him to tackle projects in which others had failed. In 1952 his creative inquisitiveness led him to be the first to perform an artificial organ replacement at Baltimore’s Sinai Hospital for a patient with an obstructive cancer of the esophagus. His success led him to turn to the possibility of an eventual heart transplant, and he proposed an experiment in which he would transplant the heart from one dog to another. The idea was rejected by Dr. Alfred Blalock of Johns Hopkins as “ridiculous.” He eventually performed this historic transplant at Maryland in 1956 with the help of his friend, R Adams Cowley, ’44. The latter provided the animals and laboratory space. However, immunological rejection resulted in limited recovery, and he realized that this was going to present the greatest obstacle to developing a successful transplant procedure. Looking over his shoulder during the procedures was intern Dr. Norman E. Shumway, who later went on to become the prime cardiac transplant surgeon at California’s Stanford Medical Center.

After the dog heart transplant, Berman spent a month in Moscow demonstrating his procedure at the Lenin Institute of Transplantation. He later did work on hibernation research, lowering the body temperature to allow for improved cardiac surgery. He also imported from France the first tranquilizer to be used in psychiatric treatment.

My friendship and fascination with Berman began when, as a Johns Hopkins medical student in 1952, I worked with him during summer break. I was allowed to participate as a scrub nurse for some of his later plastic esophagus transplant procedures. This pioneering surgery was highlighted in Life, Look, and Time magazines, and patients came from all over the United States seeking Berman’s help. In an article entitled “The Age of Transplantation,” Berman went on record with the astonishing prediction that “in the future there will be replacement parts for every organ in the body.”

Berman, despite his intensive dedication to medicine and long hours of work, was a friendly, happy-go-lucky man who needed only a tiny spark to light up his pixie-like personality. He had a deep voice which he could modulate either up or down depending on his mood. Often he would purposefully enter the fray of controversial subjects and stir things up, not because he didn’t believe in what he was saying, but rather to make people consider both sides of an argument.

In 1957 a pivotal event occurred which changed the
direction of Berman’s life.

In 1957 a pivotal event occurred which changed the direction of Berman’s life. Walking his dog outside his home on Mt. Vernon Place, he noted a familiar figure pacing nervously, obviously agitated. It was Hubert H. Humphrey, U.S. senator from Minnesota. Berman introduced himself and, finding that the senator was late for a speech he was to deliver at the Johns Hopkins University, offered to drive him there. From this chance meeting grew a lifelong friendship during which Berman became Humphrey’s personal physician as he moved from senator to vice president, and then presidential candidate.

Berman was also gaining respect on Capitol Hill for issues relating to public health. In 1960, Berman, upon the recommendation of President John F. Kennedy, was tapped to become chief consultant for health for the Alliance for Progress in Latin America. He had not only become a well-established name in Washington, but he had written a medical proposal for improved medical care in Latin America. The plan centered around sending a motorized clinic unit consisting of a jeep, a physician, and a nurse to remote areas once a week. Payment for care could be by barter; and recompense in the form of livestock would be sold at auction with proceeds applied toward the purchase of additional medical equipment and personnel hiring.

This plan appealed to President Kennedy, and he invited Berman to join him on Air Force One on a trip to Costa Rica. During the trip Kennedy asked Berman to join his staff. Berman requested a little time to think about giving up his lucrative surgical practice for a lower-paying government position, but when a call came from the White House the following day, he could not refuse.

Later, when Lyndon Johnson became president, Berman was asked to start a unit in the state department focusing on the population explosion in Latin America. Johnson had noted that efforts to build stable economies in Latin America through financial aid were unlikely to succeed without addressing this issue. Berman recommended that church leaders and heads of government be educated on the need for population control. He even managed to obtain a 45-minute audience with Pope Paul VI concerning population problems. The Pope acknowledged the link between poverty and population growth but would not budge on the issue of birth control.

Berman on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson
Berman on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson

Berman was a great admirer of the philosophy of Dr. Albert Schweitzer, and ranked him as one of the top thinkers of the century. In 1960, he and Phoebe visited Schweitzer in Africa where they stayed for twelve months. In addition to helping Schweitzer with his work, Berman kept notebooks documenting their conversations. He later published a book about this brilliant man who had accumulated doctorates in medicine, theology, philosophy, and music. Their admiration was mutual, and the two corresponded regularly until Schweitzer’s death in 1965.

Berman’s work on international health issues also led to a close friendship with Dr. Tom Dooley, founder of the Medical International Cooperation Organization in 1958. When Dooley died tragically in 1961 at the age of 34, Berman succeeded him as president. His travels with Humphrey also gave him the opportunity to meet other world figures. He slept in palaces around the world from Thailand to Windsor Castle. Berman recalled that one of the highlights of his travels was meeting British prime minister Harold Wilson at 10 Downing Street, where he viewed paintings of former prime ministers suspended above a winding staircase.

During his vast world travels with Humphrey, Berman accumulated an impressive collection of paintings and other art works which he brought to Fernwood, his 50-acre farm in Greenspring Valley. The collection included works by Juan Miro, Jackson Pollack, and Willem deKoonig. Fernwood was a sprawling estate which had been the birthplace and home of U.S. senator Daniel Brewster. He and Phoebe enjoyed horses, dogs, and farm animals, and Berman became known locally as the Squire of Fernwood. Following Humphrey’s loss in his bid for the presidency in 1968, Berman retired to Fernwood where he completed several of his manuscripts.

In 1974, Berman published his first book, The Politician Primeval, which criticized crooked politicians for prolonging their careers to gain fame and wealth. In 1976, he completed The Solid Gold Stethoscope, a scathing attack on the medical profession for its selfishness and greed. He later admitted that his satirical treatment of the medical profession may have been harsh, outrageous, and perhaps even unfair, but whether speaking of politicians or physicians, Berman declared himself “against demagoguery, dishonesty and pomposity.” And, even some of his severest critics admitted that behind the invective, there was a serious intent not to destroy society, but to cure its ills.

Berman’s third and most enduring book, Hubert: The Triumph and Tragedy of the Humphrey I Knew, was published in 1978. Reviewers were high in their praise, and even Republican senator Barry Goldwater commented that “this is not a book you are going to scan . . . I read the whole thing.” One review stated, “This is truly a gem of a memoir and is probably the best view of Humphrey—warts and all—that we are likely to get.”

It seems only ironically fitting that when Humphrey died of bladder cancer, he should have done so while visiting Fernwood, in the second floor bedroom which was always kept in reserve for him. Humphrey called Berman his best friend. In turn, Berman described Humphrey as having “one of the most active and probing minds I’ve ever run across.”

In 1970, Berman uttered one of his most famous statements, resulting in his being targeted by the most prominent feminists of the time. During a meeting of the Democratic party’s committee on national priorities, when Congresswoman Patsy Mink suggested that women’s rights should be given the highest priority, Berman commented that “raging hormonal influences” during menstruation and menopause should preclude women from positions of executive power. “All things being equal,” Berman said, “I would still rather have had a male JFK make the Cuban missile crisis decisions than a female of similar age who could possibly be subject to the curious mental aberrations of that age group.” When this hit the press, pressure from women’s groups from around the world forced Berman to resign from the committee.

Berman regretted being miscast in the role of villain in this controversy, arguing that this skirmish was given far more attention than it deserved. He actually saw himself as an advocate of women’s rights. “I think the feminist movement was an important movement, especially in the areas of equal opportunity and equal pay for equal work,” he later said. Nevertheless, he exploited the publicity when, in 1982, he published The Compleat Chauvinist: A Survival Guide for the Bedeviled Male, a humorous treatment of the issue. “Women have done such awful things to me that I have to fight back,” he said to a Baltimore News-American interviewer.

In 1970, Berman uttered one of his most famous statements, resulting in his being targeted by the most prominent feminists of the time.

Berman’s final book, In Africa with Schweitzer, was published in 1986 and was based on his correspondence with the famous medical missionary and the detailed notes he had taken when they had worked together from 1960 to 1961. “I always wanted to write,” Berman remarked in an interview. “I enjoyed medicine, and I think I made contributions, but I enjoy writing more than anything else I’ve ever done.”

He died on November 25, 1987, at the age of 68. Three years later Berman’s widow endowed an international professorship in his name at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health. She created the Edgar F. Berman and Hubert H. Humphrey Foundation in International Health, and endowed its chair.

How is Berman remembered nearly 20 years later? I’d like to think for his innovative and pioneering transplant procedures, for his leadership in promoting public health issues on behalf of two U.S. presidents, and for the wonderful friendship he shared with a vice president. Berman, we recall, was a free spirit who understood that there were at least two sides to every debate. He was never afraid to proclaim his position on a controversial subject and always believed he was right.

But his critics—who unfortunately constitute a majority—remember him differently. They argue that Berman was nothing more than an arrogant and conniving opportunist who would do anything—or say anything—to garner attention. It was medicine, they conclude, that provided him with a golden opportunity in life, and he showed his gratitude by becoming one of the profession’s biggest critics.
What a tragedy.

Back | Home