Bertram Yaffe, 93; longtime health care advocate

Bert Yaffe led the Bay State’s Public Health Council for five gubernatorial administrations.
Handout photo
Bert Yaffe led the Bay State’s Public Health Council for five gubernatorial administrations.

Bert Yaffe’s commitment to public health began in the deep South, when his parents took in a boarder named Sarah Stokes, a nurse who delivered health care to residents of his poor county.

At 14, Mr. Yaffe said in a 2000 speech, he began driving her in rural Georgia on rounds and was struck by her determination to provide the best possible care to the greatest number of people, with very limited resources.

“On the red clay back roads, through the cotton fields, and among the broken-down shacks and contaminated wells of Hancock County, she introduced me to hookworm disease, untreated tetanus, the born afflicted of an untreated syphilitic parent, end-stage cancer without palliative care, and a sharecropper victim of stroke, pitifully plowing a field,” he said.


He recalled her frustration that she was unable to prevent sickness and often unable to relieve pain. Later, he said, when he became a public health leader, he would “turn to Sarah Stokes and ask, ‘How many people will really benefit from this?’ Or, ‘Could these resources be better used somewhere else?’ ”

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Mr. Yaffe, whose 1970 campaign for Congress as an antiwar candidate inspired young voters, died Aug. 12 after a brief hospitalization. He was 93 and lived most of his life in Fall River.

He founded and led the New England Coalition for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention and the Erna Yaffe Foundation, named for his late wife. A successful businessman for nearly 30 years before moving into politics and public health, he led the Massachusetts Public Health Council over the course of five gubernatorial administrations.

“Bert was deeply and actively involved in the politics of the state and the country,” said Michael S. Dukakis.

The former governor described Mr. Yaffe as “a wonderful guy, always an inspiration to guys like me,” and added that he was “especially committed to public health. He spent an enormous amount of time working on it.”


Mr. Yaffe, whom Dukakis said was a “combat veteran, a Marine, and very proud of it, and at the same time very liberal politically,” ran for the state’s 10th Congressional District seat in 1970 as an antiwar Democrat, but lost to Margaret Heckler, the Republican incumbent.

“His campaign drew a lot of young people into politics, me included,” said E.J. Dionne, a Washington Post columnist who grew up in Fall River and met Mr. Yaffe there.

“Would that everyone could be lucky enough to have such a second father,” Dionne wrote in an Aug. 14 Washington Post column about Mr. Yaffe.

In a 1970 letter to the Globe about his candidacy and his opposition to the war, Mr. Yaffe wrote: “Cease-fire proposals are fine and good, but they do not reach the central fact that has emerged from 30 months of ‘negotiations’ in Paris, that our inflexible support of the South Vietnamese dictatorship remains the principle obstacle to our finding peace in Indochina.”

Mr. Yaffe was a delegate to several Democratic National Conventions in the 1970s and 1980s. He also served as president of the Massachusetts Public Health Association and the Massachusetts Health Council.


Born in Sparta, Ga., Bertram A. Yaffe graduated from Emory University in Atlanta in 1941. He attended law school at Emory and worked as a reporter for the New Orleans Times-Picayune before enlisting in the Marines, said his daughter, Cheryl Yaffe Kiser of Weston.

He was visiting relatives in Brookline when he met Erna Jaffe of Fall River. They married in 1942.

During 27 months serving in the Pacific theater, Mr. Yaffe rose to the rank of major, fought in the battles of Bougainville, Guam, and Iwo Jima, and received two Bronze Stars and a Purple Heart. In 1999 he published a book called “Fragments of War: A Marine’s Personal Journey.”

“What was really striking about the book was the amazing respect he showed for his Japanese opponents,” Dionne said, adding that Mr. Yaffe believed war “should always be a last resort and never a first resort.”

After the war, Mr. Yaffe and Erna settled in Fall River, and he took over her father’s business, the High Point Paper Box Co. After Erna died of cancer in 1977, Mr. Yaffe’s daughter said, he “started exploring the whole notion of disease prevention.”

“He loved his wife, and when she died, he went on a journey,” she said. “He became evangelical about promoting different ways of thinking about public health and disease prevention.”

The foundation he began in his wife’s name led to creation of the New England Coalition for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention, which focused on issues including the prevention of AIDS and obesity.

He married Sybil Sheine in 1986. She died in 1998.

In 1989, the Globe reported about an AIDS conference and said Mr. Yaffe and other public health leaders believed that frankness and education were essential to prevent the spread of the disease among teenagers.

“When you’re talking about AIDS, you’re talking about sex,” Mr. Yaffe said. “The young community — that’s where the growth of the heterosexual spread is.”

Steve Miller, former director of the New England Coalition, said the organization was a “nationally unique effort to bring together researchers, policymakers, the media, and opinion-leaders around emerging issues in public health.”

Mr. Yaffe “was a phenomenal person,” said Miller, now at the Harvard School of Public Health. He added that Mr. Yaffe “had an amazing network of contacts” in the political, media, and public health fields, “people who understood that he was doing something unique.

“Bert understood that if we’re going to solve the health funding crisis, we’re going to have to put prevention at the front of our health care and political agendas,” Miller said.

Creating social conditions that keep people healthy was Mr. Yaffe’s main goal, said Miller, who described him as “a political animal, with one foot in the world of wellness, and one foot in the world of practical politics.”

Mr. Yaffe published many articles, won numerous awards, and was recognized by groups such as the World Health Organization, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Partners in Prevention.

His daughter said he liked to read philosophy books and “was always searching, utterly a philosopher.”

“He was very charming with these crystal blue eyes and his Southern drawl,” she said.

A service was held Thursday for Mr. Yaffe, who in addition to his daughter leaves two sons, Eric of Warwick, R.I., and Rob of Barrington, R.I.; three grandchildren; and a great-grandchild.

When it came to his own health, Dionne said, Mr. Yaffe was in “extraordinary shape.”

“He really walked his talk,” Dionne said. “He was a remarkable human being, just a class act.”

Miller recalled that Mr. Yaffe “believed in living as healthy and strong and vibrant a life as possible.”

Kathleen McKenna can be reached at kmck66@