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Dr. Harris Berman, HMO pioneer and former Tufts University School of Medicine dean, dies at 83

Dr. Harris BermanDina Rudick/Globe Staff/The Boston Globe

As a 27-year-old Peace Corps physician in India in 1965, Dr. Harris A. Berman found himself quizzing a ministry of health bureaucrat about the availability of health care facilities for the program’s volunteers.

“Young man, you Americans are used to having unlimited resources to take care of people,” the bureaucrat told him. “In India, we have very few rupees to spend on health. We spend it on public health, prevention.”

The encounter inspired Dr. Berman to rethink his approach to medicine, and later led him to become a pioneering executive in New England health maintenance organizations.

Dr. Berman, who finished his career as what he cheerfully described as the oldest medical school dean in the United States, died in Tufts Medical Center on Oct. 30 of congestive heart failure. He was 83 and lived in Brookline.

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A cofounder in 1971 of the Matthew Thornton Health Plan not-for-profit HMO in New Hampshire, Dr. Berman became chief executive of Tufts Health Plan in 1986, guiding it while its membership grew from 60,000 to 1 million.

Then at 65, he joined the Tufts University School of Medicine faculty, initially chairing the department of public health and community medicine, then serving as dean of public health and professional degree programs.

Dr. Berman was named interim dean of the medical school in 2009. When the interim title was dropped two years later, he became — at 73 — the oldest medical school dean in the nation, as far as anyone could tell. He retired in 2019.

“He came in and did something that’s, unfortunately, quite rare in a university. He spent a lot of time listening to other people,” said Lawrence Bacow, who was president of Tufts when Dr. Berman was interim dean, and is now president of Harvard University.

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“Harris never felt the need to be the smartest person in the room, although he often was,” Bacow said at Dr. Berman’s funeral service. “And whenever he spoke, people realized that he was the wisest. And in an academic setting, wisdom is often a much scarcer resource than intellect.”

Part of Dr. Berman’s wisdom was rooted in his Peace Corps experience, and that illuminating conversation with a young bureaucrat.

The revelation that another country spent its limited financial resources for health care on prevention “was a whole new way of thinking for me,” he said in a 2011 interview with a Tufts publication when he was named dean of the School of Medicine.

“I’ve never forgotten that guy,” Dr. Berman said. “He certainly affected my thinking and my future. He was absolutely right. Even in this country, where we have lots of money and lots of resources, we still don’t have enough, and we should spend more than we do on public health and prevention. India got me interested in population medicine, in the whole question of how you prevent illness.”

And that, he added, “eventually led me to get involved with starting HMOs. How do you take care of a population? How do you take the budget you have and do the most that you can for people in your care? How do you keep them healthy, and prevent illness? That experience in India was formative for me.”

With Dr. James Squires, he launched Matthew Thornton in New Hampshire, where they both were from, and the HMO grew to about 50,000 members.

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Then he switched to leading Tufts Health Plan, taking a very businesslike path for someone who had trained as a physician.

“My dad was a businessman, and I had heard business talk at the dinner table all my life,” Dr. Berman said. “Business came naturally to me.”

The older of two siblings, Harris Alan Berman was born in Concord, N.H., on May 30, 1938.

His father, Frederick Berman, ran a wholesale plumbing and heating supply business. His mother, Marion Rubin Berman, who was known as Mitzi, was a pianist. A New England Conservatory graduate at age 19, she performed, accompanied, and taught lessons — and encouraged her son’s lifelong love of and involvement with music.

At Concord High School, the student newspaper dubbed him Busy Bee Berman because of his leadership in so many activities. Harris then went to Harvard, from which he graduated in 1960 with a bachelor’s degree.

In New York City, where he graduated in 1964 from the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, Dr. Berman began dating Ruth E. Nemzoff, and they married in 1964.

They had met several years earlier when Ruth was a counselor at a summer camp his sister attended. Later, friends in New York fixed them up on a date.

“I think what drew us together was that on our first date we talked about going into the Peace Corps,” said Ruth, who has a doctorate in administration, social policy, and planning, and taught for many years at what is now Bentley University. She also has written books about parenting and family relations.

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“We both were very much attracted to the notion of service and adventure,” she said, “and that was a theme throughout our lives.”

They had four children: Kim of Bethesda, Md., Seth of Cambridge, Rebecca of San Francisco, and Sarabeth of Washington, D.C.

While working with those whose careers he encouraged, Dr. Berman “was really good at seeing the big picture. He used to say, ‘It’s not a crisis. It’s a problem that needs to be solved,’ " said Rebecca, a physician who followed her father into academia and directs the internal medicine residency program at the University of California, San Francisco.

“Beyond being an amazing dad,” she said, “he also was really a coach and a mentor to me when I started this job.”

From middle age onward, Dr. Berman faced a series of health challenges: a heart attack, bypass surgery, kidney cancer, a pacemaker.

“He was really a walking testament to miracles of modern medicine,” Sarabeth said at his funeral.

As he attended milestone family events, “what became clear to me is that he was marking time by the landmarks in my life that he never expected to see,” she said. “That idea defined my relationship to him and really how he lived. He made the time. He marked the moments. It’s not so much that he treated every day like his last day. It’s more that he lived purposely and with gratitude.”

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A service has been held for Dr. Berman, who in addition to his wife and children leaves his sister, Phyllis of Sudbury, and 11 grandchildren.

Dr. Berman “was sort of a quiet person who really knew what was right, and what he wanted to accomplish, and set out to do that in a way that was never flashy,” Seth said in an interview.

At the funeral, Seth recalled that when he was a boy, his father returned home to share the story of an HMO chief executive who “had sold his company and made hundreds of millions of dollars. I asked my father, ‘Aren’t you jealous?’ Anyone who knows my father and is older than 14 could probably guess his answer: ‘Why would I be jealous? That is not what I set out to do.’ This typifies one of my father’s greatest strengths.”

Though he achieved great success, Dr. Berman didn’t compare his life to others and “always took the time to enjoy the view from wherever he was and whatever path he was on,” Seth said. “When I think of my father, I think of a man who was truly content.”


Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.