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1927 – 2014

JOHN J BERGAN, M.D., 1927 – 2014

John J. Bergan, an innovative and pioneering surgeon, performed the first kidney transplant at Northwestern University, then Passavant Hospital in 1964, going on to initiate the divisions of transplantation and then vascular surgery at Northwestern University. Born in Tampico, Mexico in 1927, he died of progressive supranuclear palsy on June 11, 2014 in Lincolnwood Place, Lincolnwood, Illinois. A graduate of Purdue and University of Indiana School of Medicine, Dr. Bergan came to Chicago for a surgical residency at was then Wesley Memorial Hospital. He authored 40 books, more than 800 scholarly publications, received numerous national and international honors, and contributed organizationally as a member and officer of our leading surgical and vascular specialty societies.

I first met John in 1978 when he came to the Cleveland Vascular Society to speak, calling the entity of popliteal cystic disease to our attention. Not soon after, a case presented at Grand Rounds proved to be the rare entity that he had described in exquisite detail. This was typical of Dr. Bergan’s focus upon the unique discoveries in the rapidly evolving field of vascular surgery. We then inspected the Tartan 44 Racing Sloop, Twain, built by Tartan Marine in Mentor Ohio, which had won the Southern Ocean Racing Circuit and which was being fitted out for the Bermuda Race. I learned that he was a skilled yachtsman and highly respected at the Chicago Yacht Club where his memorial service was held on July 7, 2014. I once sailed with him as crew to Mackinac Island; during a long stormy night we donned Gortex foul weather gear which John had agreed to try out. At that time the gear required glue at the seams; in spite of our careful observation of this step, our suits leaked during the heavy rain we encountered that night. Within a few years, however, Gortex foul weather gear became the best that could be obtained. John foresaw their comfort and utility over old fashioned sweaty rubber foul weather gear. He was always willing to try something new.

He and his partner Dr. James S. T. Yao initiated a series of postgraduate vascular conferences at Northwestern beginning in the early 1970s, starting with a book on Venous Disorders. This series continues to the present. Each conference produced a book, not meant to be a fixed text, but rather a dynamic record of the development of the discipline of vascular surgery. John, with earlier experience as a transplant surgeon, believed that vascular surgery needed focused definition as a distinct specialty. He worked tirelessly to achieve this end. These volumes are a living record of the steps that made the discipline of Vascular Surgery the success that it has become. He made gentle suggestions, prodding us to develop new approaches for diagnosis and treatment. John, always gentile, initially referred to my work on male erectile dysfunction as “pelvic circulatory disorder.” The elegant series of conferences soon outgrew the Drake Hotel, but became a treasured pre-Christmas ritual. I gave him a small mounted prism inscribed with a notation: ‘John Bergan, who sheds light on things.” And that was the theme of his life.

He early recognized and foresaw the critical importance of endovascular repair of aortic aneurysms, seeing to it that Juan Parodi’s seminal contribution was published in the Annals of Vascular Surgery, inasmuch as this ‘crazy idea’ had been rejected by a leading American vascular journal. As early as 1992, he and his coauthors stressed the unexpected late survival benefits of endovascular as opposed to open vascular surgical interventions. This contribution in the Archives of Surgery was greeted with overt disapproval which John and his coauthors handled with even-handed grace in the ensuing discussion.

At a London vascular meeting in 1986, John conveyed his belief to me that venous disease required more attention and specialization, an insight soon followed by a meeting of a small group of vascular surgeons he convened in St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands. The American Venous Forum was founded in 1988; Dr. Bergan was its first president. Dr. Bergan left Northwestern in 1988 to begin a second career in La Jolla, California specializing solely upon venous disease with appointments as Clinical Professor of Surgery at the University of California at San Diego, as attending surgeon at the Veterans Administration Medical Center and at the Scripps Memorial Hospital. Recognizing that surgeons, speaking only amongst themselves, might not most effectively advance scientific progress, he collaborated with basic scientist Schmidt-Schonbein in publishing a seminal review of venous disease in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2006. He continued to contribute an amazing array of national and international lectureships requiring extensive travels until the onset of his illness.

I was privileged to accompany him on some of his international travels. His energy was endless, his lectures clear and concise, and his manners exquisite. His focus was always data driven, but at the same time he foresaw and supported future advances in diagnosis and treatment of vascular diseases in general and venous disease in particular. His taste in in clothing was impeccable with signature bow ties and bespoke shirting. Once, in London, he took me to purchase a proper blue blazer and on to another establishment to obtain folding 35mm slide holders. Though long supplanted by electronic media, I keep mine safe in my study. On another occasion, we bought a mirror for his classic Morgan and then took a car to Chartwell, there to view the historic garden and the correspondence between Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill prior to the entry of the United States into World War II. These travels with John, in addition to contributing to the international community, became part of a personal education. There exists a time to start and a time to finish. John accomplished as much as any human being could during the time allotted to him, particularly in an overarching view of venous disease, the Vein Book (Elsevier Science 2006).

His first marriage to Carolyn Widener ended in divorce in 1980; he and his second wife, Elizabeth Molnar divorced in 2013. Daughters Betsy Altman, Margaret Bergan Davis, a son John, a sister Margaret Butterworth, a brother Ernest, three grandchildren and a great grandchild survive him. Upon his return to the Chicago area during his illness, Betsy Altman kindly arranged several visits to lunch with John in 2011 and 2012. While tending to ignore his right side, sitting on his left, I again experienced his urbane kindness and wit. On our last occasion, Dr. Leonel Villavicencio, his wife Susan, my wife Eve and I gathered with Betsy about a large round table. Looking at Eve and Susan with a gleam in his eye he said “Well, I am glad we decided to keep them around!” As with everything this urbane, kind man said and did, he was, once again, absolutely right.


Excerpted in part from: DePalma RG. John J Bergan MD, FACS, Hon FACPh FRCS (Eng.) Old School Gentleman and Visionary. Phlebology 2013 Feb 19. PMID 23422293