American Surgical Association Transactions

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1927 - 2020

Victor M. Bernhard, M.D., 1927-2020

Victor Montwid Bernhard, MD was born on June 19, 1927, the eldest of three children of Dr. Louis and Charlotte Bernhard. His father developed a large primary care practice and specialty clinic, serving the growing post-war community in Milwaukee. Victor followed his father’s passion and commitment to a career in medicine. He obtained his undergraduate degree in 1947 from Northwestern University, became a second-generation graduate of Northwestern’s School of Medicine in 1950, and continued his training with internship at Passavant Memorial Hospital and surgical residency training at Wesley Memorial Hospital. He completed a Surgical Research Fellowship in 1959 at the Chicago Veterans Administration Research Hospital, developing techniques in canine liver surgery with Dr. Thomas Starzel, who was a Research Fellow there at the same time. After completion of his surgical training, he returned to Milwaukee to work at his father’s clinic, and was recruited as a Clinical Professor by Dr. Edwin Ellison, who had become the first Chairman of Surgery at the Marquette University School of Medicine – the predecessor of the Medical College of Wisconsin. Keying on his research endeavors at Northwestern in aortic reconstruction, his academic interests turned to the newly developing specialty of Vascular Surgery. In 1964, Dr. Ellison arranged a “Special Fellowship” for Dr. Bernhard with Dr. Michael DeBakey at Baylor University College of Medicine in Houston.

After completion of this fellowship, Dr. Bernhard joined of the Medical College of Wisconsin as a full-time faculty member and was appointed as the first Chief of Vascular Surgery. He pioneered the concept of establishing a clinical hospital service for the care of patients with vascular diseases. The “Red Service” at the Milwaukee County General Hospital became legendary for the specialized care of vascular patients and Victor (everyone speaking to him or about him called him “Victor”) championed vascular training for surgical residents and the development of nursing expertise in the new field. Research interests lead to collaboration with the Department of Radiology to develop angiographic techniques. Clinical care was enhanced with research in preservation techniques for homografts and an early interest in angioscopy. Dr. Jonathan Towne joined the MCW Division of Vascular Surgery in 1976, and in 1979, they inaugurated one of the first Fellowships in Vascular Surgery, and co-authored three editions of Complications in Vascular Surgery. They championed the study of surgical complications, believing that the scrutiny of historic, established and evolving techniques would enhance patient care – advocating that reporting the circumstances of complicated surgical outcomes might offer more benefit than describing a large series of successes.

In 1981, Dr. Bernhard was recruited to be the Chief of Surgery at Albert Einstein Medical Center and he departed Milwaukee for Philadelphia to join the faculty of Temple University School of Medicine. He returned to a leadership position in Vascular Surgery when he became Professor and Chairman of the Vascular Surgery Section at the University of Arizona Health Science Center in 1984. He completed his academic career in Tucson, with a focus on techniques for carotid endarterectomy, procedures for lower extremity limb salvage and thrombolytic therapy for vascular graft occlusion. Upon retiring from the faculty at the University of Arizona in 1996, Dr. Bernhard became Vice-president of Medical Affairs at Endovascular Technologies, joining a research team to develop an endovascular graft for treatment of abdominal aortic aneurysms. He was appointed Emeritus Adjunct Professor in the Stanford University School of Medicine Division of Vascular Surgery in 2000. At the time of his death, he was an Emeritus Lecturer in Vascular Surgery at the University of Chicago Pritzker School of Medicine.

In retirement, Victor moved from a working ranch in Colorado to downtown Chicago and finally to a seaside inn in Belfast, Maine. He was a lifelong adventurous traveller, visited all seven continents, and was an enthusiastic aviator and yachtsman. He died after a short illness in Port Charlotte, Florida on July 21, 2020 at the age of 93. He is survived by his wife of 49 years, Susan Baskin Bernhard, four children, eight grandchildren and a large extended family. He will be remembered for his good humour, generosity, and unending fountain of ideas. He will be admired for his genuine interest in the work and lives of his colleagues, as a mentor to several generations of vascular surgeons, and as a gifted story-teller, commentator, and chronicler of Vascular Surgery – a specialty that was born and evolved through his long and engaged professional life.