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Dr. Manfred Ernesti, a physician whose caring manner harkened from another era, dies at 89

Dr. Manfred Ernesti advocated developing a relationship first with the patient, not their medical charts.
Dr. Manfred Ernesti advocated developing a relationship first with the patient, not their medical charts. (John Tlumacki/Globe Staff/File 2018)

An emissary from an earlier age of medicine, Dr. Manfred Ernesti could cup a patient’s chin in his hand, ask a few questions, and diagnose an ailment precisely and humanely.

“The problem with some younger doctors is they don’t have a relationship with the patients. They’re looking at the screen,” he said last year when he was still practicing four days a week, two decades past when most people retire.

Dr. Ernesti, who was 89 when he died in his Milton home Sunday, averted his gaze from the computer and looked into the eyes of each patient he treated. Doing so, he said, let him to see the whole person.

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He also was a mentor to younger colleagues who saw him as an example of how medicine might still be practiced warmly and well in an increasingly impersonal era.

“As a guy in his 80s, he was like a resident. He did everything complete,” said Dr. John Mahoney, a neurologist at Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital-Milton, where Dr. Ernesti also practiced.

“If I could be like Fred Ernesti,” Mahoney added, “I’ll be all right.”

To his work, Dr. Ernesti brought a lifelong curiosity about all parts of life. As a boy, he would dissect the occasional small lizard or amphibian to see what made them tick. He never stopped wondering.

After he died, family members talked about what made him keep working nearly full time into his late-80s.

“We wondered, ‘What drove him? What was his essence? Was it because he was a physician?’ ” said Dr. Ernesti’s son William of Halifax. “And my son said, ‘No, he told me that he lived his life as if he was a child. He was in awe of everything.’ ”

It was as if by paying close attention, Dr. Ernesti could understand everything about a patient – heart and mind, body and soul.

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“He had this subtle insight,” Mahoney said. “He almost knew your DNA.”

Dr. Ernesti was troubled by younger colleagues who spent too much time communing with computers and too little with patients.

“And people are complaining and that’s a good thing that they’re complaining,” he said a year ago, when he was featured in a Globe column by Tom Farragher. “Because, eventually, they are going to change the system.”

Colleagues such as Dr. Scott Lutch, also a physician at the Milton hospital, said younger doctors could learn from Dr. Ernesti’s example.

“He’s at the pinnacle,” Lutch told Farragher. “I say to these young 30-year-old doctors, ‘Listen, you guys, you make sure you get to know him.’ I tell them that, because they’ll never meet anybody like him in their whole lives as physicians.”

A respected endocrinologist, Dr. Ernesti garnered honors including the Lira Family Award for Physician Excellence, but such recognitions barely reflected his wide-ranging intellect and interests.

“In the world of medicine, he was one of the last men of letters,” Mahoney said. “He knew everything about Irish history and music and art and Italy. He always seemed to be a step ahead. And he wasn’t out there bragging. He just knew it.”

In the course of a conversation, Dr. Ernesti might quote from Shakespeare or the Bible. He painted watercolors and created pen-and-ink drawings. Away from work, he turned his attention to all topics.

“If you walked into his library, you get everything. There’s every type of book and subject,” his son William said. “He used to say, ‘You’re given 80 years or so on this planet. What are you going to do with them?’ ”

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An only child, Dr. Ernesti spent his boyhood and adolescence in Argentina and Aruba. His father, William Ernesti, was an oil company engineer who had moved to South America from his native Germany.

In Argentina, Dr. Ernesti’s father met and married Teodelinda Fernadez, who was of Spanish and Portuguese ancestry. After William Ernesti’s work took him to Aruba, the couple decided to send their son back to Buenos Aires for a better education.

He attended the University of Buenos Aires for his undergraduate and medical degrees. Dr. Ernesti “loved his education there, and talked about it often,” and he would speak about how Nobel Prize-winners had been among his teachers, his son said.

In the mid-1950s, Dr. Ernesti went to Boston to further his education, which included training at Carney Hospital. “At first, he just wanted to see how the medical community worked up here, and he planned to return to Argentina,” his son said.

Those plans changed abruptly when he stepped into an elevator and saw Julia Hegarty, a social worker at the hospital. She was a daughter of a Boston police sergeant who had emigrated from Ireland. Dr. Ernesti was immediately smitten.

“My mother said she knew right away he was interested. He had a book in his hand and was reading it upside down,” William said.

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In the Globe interview last year, Dr. Ernesti remembered the moment as if it had just happened. As he stood in the elevator he thought: “Holy Mother of God! I don’t know what I did to deserve you.”

They married in 1958 and had six children. Mrs. Ernesti died in March 2016.

“When she died, I was stroking her hand for five hours and then suddenly she went away,” Dr. Ernesti recalled last year. At that moment he thought: “It’s impossible that you’re not here. It’s absolutely impossible.”

In addition to his son William, Dr. Ernesti leaves three other sons, Richard of London, John of Milton, and Alex of Concord; two daughters, Monica of Cesena, Italy, and Cecilia Ernesti Bailey of Cohasset; and seven grandchildren.

A funeral Mass will be said at 10 a.m. Friday in St. Gregory Church in Dorchester.

Along with leading by example, Dr. Ernesti liked to share the knowledge he had accumulated, sometimes trading books with colleagues whose friendships he valued.

“In December he knew that he was dying,” Mahoney said, “and he gave me this book and wrote a final note to me: ‘A good friend is like having one soul in two people. Thank you for being one of them.’ ”

Friendship and intellectual curiosity led Dr. Ernesti down many paths, not least of them music.

“We once discussed, and this is no joke, the first note of ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ by Gershwin, which was one his favorite pieces of music,” his son William said of that composition’s famous soaring clarinet opening.

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“He said, ‘That note changed my life,’ ” William recalled.

Thus it was with so many of Dr. Ernesti’s interests.

“He felt that it’s so important to live in the moment,” William said. “He thought it’s so important to not let things pass you by innocently, so that you miss things that are essential to humanity.”

Even so, Dr. Ernesti said in last year’s interview, what each person learns must be cultivated with care, much like the way he treated patients.

“I’m very much aware that knowledge is ephemeral,” he said. “One day you have it. It’s like a tree that blossoms. If you don’t nourish that tree, it will disappear entirely.”


Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard @globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @BryanMarquard.