American Surgical Association Transactions

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1924 - 2018

William F. Bernhard, M.D., 1924-2018

William F. Bernhard was born in Brooklyn, New York and grew up in Great Neck, New York. He was the only child of William and Helen Bernhard. He attended Manlius Military Academy in Syracuse, N.Y., and graduated in three years with a bachelor's degree from Williams College. He served in the Navy in the Pacific at the end of World War II and then entered what is now Upstate Medical University in Syracuse where he graduated with an M.D. degree. He completed general and thoracic surgery residencies at Bellevue Hospital and New York Presbyterian Hospital. While serving his residency, he met June Horne, a nurse at Upstate University Hospital and they married in 1948.

Dr. Bernhard was recruited to Boston Children's Hospital by Robert Gross, a pioneering pediatric heart surgeon. Dr. Bernhard formed the Boston Children's Hospital Cardiovascular Research Laboratory. His initial work assessed the use of the hyperbaric chamber to treat hypoxia during open heart surgery. He made medical history when he was called to treat the premature child of then President John F. Kennedy and Jaqueline Bouvier Kennedy. The infant Patrick was born 51/2 weeks premature and suffered from hyaline membrane disease. Bernhard and three colleagues took the child into the hyperbaric chamber in an effort to save his life. Although there were initial signs of improvement, the infant died 39 hours after birth. The media attention generated by this event led to increased research into the treatment of respiratory distress of premature infants and helped advance the field.

Bernhard was an inventor of several medical devices, the most notable being the first Ventricular Assist Device to be successfully implanted in a human, which was announced to the world in 1978 at an American Heart Association meeting. Dr. Bernhard's work on this novel pneumatic driven assist device was supported by NIH funding, and he completed the long term clinical trials demonstrating its efficacy. The device was then taken up by Thermo Electron Corporation, which owned Thermedics, Inc. that subsequently developed and manufactured the ventricular assist device. Later, a subsidiary of Thermedics, Thermo Cardiosystems merged with Thoratec to bring the "Heartmate" LVAD for FDA approval that was obtained in 2002.

Dr. Bernhard published over fifty articles in the New England Journal of Medicine, and the Journal of Thoracic and Cardiovascular Surgery, and his work was the subject of television programs including CBS' "60 Minutes", and PBS' "Nova". He was Senior Associate in Cardiovascular Surgery at Boston Children’s Hospital and Professor of Surgery at Harvard Medical School. He was an avid sailor and was known for his dry humor which he retained until the end of his life. He was a devout Catholic, often attending mass daily. Dr. Bernhard died on October 29, 2018 at the age of 93, and is survived by his wife June, nine children, fifteen grandchildren and one great grandson.