Already a renowned cardiothoracic surgeon who had pioneered the use of innovative devices, Dr. Robert L. Berger stepped into an equally critical medical arena in 1990 when he analyzed the science behind hypothermia experiments that took place in a Nazi concentration camp during World War II.
When he took on the subject, scientific papers were citing results from tests that were performed on hundreds of prisoners in the Dachau camp, despite debate over the ethics of relying on data gathered through brutal criminal conduct that was cloaked in the guise of medical research. Wielding an analytical knife as expertly as the tools he used in an operating room, Dr. Berger found that the methods Nazi researchers used were unsound, their approach erratic, the resulting reports “riddled with inconsistencies.” There was “evidence of data falsification and suggestions of fabrication,” he wrote, adding that the data “cannot advance science or save human lives.”
Dr. Berger generated headlines when he published his findings in May 1990 in the New England Journal of Medicine, partly because he had fought with the Hungarian resistance as a teenager during the Holocaust, risking death daily if anyone discovered he was a Jew.
That article, however, was but one chapter in a life that took him from the streets of Budapest to Boston’s hospitals. His career included trailblazing operations using a left ventricular assist device and research decades ago that helped lay the groundwork for today’s transcatheter aortic-valve replacement surgery. Dr. Berger’s work was transformational, said Dr. Jeffrey J. Popma, an interventional cardiologist at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. “He really pioneered the technology that we’re using today,” Popma added. “He was almost an Einstein of medical device technology.”
Dr. Berger, who had been director of clinical research in the division of thoracic surgery and interventional pulmonology at Beth Israel, died in the medical center Friday of complications from a heart attack. He was 86 and lived in Brookline.
“That research he did on the Nazi medical experiments was one of the things I think he was most proud of in his life. It was where he got to combine his medical expertise and his experience as a Holocaust survivor,” his daughter Ilana of Kingston, N.Y., wrote in an e-mail, adding in an interview that Dr. Berger “went into cardiothoracic surgery to justify his existence — he survived, and so many others didn’t. He needed to be always proving that there was a reason he lived. And it was a way to save lives he couldn’t save when he was younger.”
Along with conducting ground-breaking research and surgeries, Dr. Berger was ahead of his time in promoting diversity among surgeons he trained, said Dr. John I. Polk, assistant dean for student affairs at Boston University School of Medicine.
Taking into account the number of positions available in the service he led, “Bob trained more women and minorities in cardiac surgery than any other program in the country, probably to this day,” said Polk, who was among those for whom Dr. Berger was a teacher and mentor.
Polk added that although Dr. Berger was low-key about this accomplishment, simply saying that he trained the best students he could find, “he was socially aware. He didn’t wear it on his sleeve, but he was certainly aware and it reflected in the way he led his life and ran his practice.”
The youngest of four, Robert Laszlo Berger was born in Debrecen, Hungary, where his parents, Sigmund Berger and the former Anna Weinstock, ran a store that sold china and glass. During the Holocaust he and a friend went to Budapest, used assumed names, and fought with the resistance. “Every day was a risky affair,” said his wife, Dr. Patricia Downs Berger. “If anybody thought they were Jewish they could be shot on the spot.”
After the war, Dr. Berger lived in a displaced persons camp before arriving in New York City in 1947, speaking no English. He moved to Boston and spent a year at Boston Latin School before attending Harvard College, paying his way with scholarships and summer jobs. He graduated from Harvard and the Boston University School of Medicine.
When Dr. Berger was a boy, one of his teachers was more impressed with his intelligence than his attempts at art, and advised him to pick a profession that used his head, rather than his hands. But while choosing a residency program, he had a mealtime encounter with Boston City Hospital’s chief of surgery, who brushed aside the leftover concerns from Dr. Berger’s youth. “He said, ‘Can you tie your shoes?’ And Bob said, ‘Yes, I can do that,’ so he said, ‘Come be a surgical resident with us,’ ” Dr. Berger’s wife said.
Dr. Berger met Patricia Downs when she was training as a physician at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, where he was chief of surgery. Months later, after he left to become chief of cardiothoracic surgery at Boston City Hospital and University Hospital, he called to ask her out. They married in 1971.
“He was this amazing cardiac surgeon who was so smart and caring and innovative and daring. He was wonderful, a very charming guy, and he was a mystery, too,” she recalled.
“I have to say it took me about 20 years until I thought I had some understanding of the other side of him,” she added. “He, up to the end of his life, had a night life and a day life. And in his night life, he had terrible dreams. He had two kinds of dreams: He had dreams about Nazis and he had dreams about surgery. He’d often wake up and say, ‘Boy I had an awful case last night.’ ”
He had many professional memories to draw from come nighttime. In late 1965, the Globe reported that Dr. Berger was among the physicians who performed the first total exchange of blood for a young man whose hepatitis had left him near death with liver disease. Dr. Berger also directed the Overholt Blue Cross Emphysema Surgery Trial, which contributed to the understanding of lung volume reduction surgery, and participated in developing biologic lung volume reduction surgery, according to Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.
“He was truly a pioneer in the early days of cardiovascular thoracic surgery,” said Popma, who also teaches at Harvard Medical School. “He was visionary in terms of his thoughts.”
In addition to his wife and daughter, Dr. Berger leaves another daughter, Shana of Somerville; a brother, Thomas Berger of Forest Hills, N.Y.; a sister, Gabriela Gordon of Australia; and two grandchildren.
A service will be held at 11 a.m. Wednesday in Levine Chapels in Brookline. Burial will be in Or Emet Cemetery in West Roxbury.
Shana said that she and her sister “learned so much through his choices and his values, through the way he interacted with his patients and friends and even strangers. We learned from him what it means to be a good person in this world.”
She added that “what stands out the most was just how caring he was and how much my sister and I and my mom knew how much he really loved us — this unconditional love. He would do anything for us.”Bryan Marquard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.