Professor Howard A. Bern: a scientist with an international reputation who embraced diversity

By Alan Bern

Howard A. Bern, a professor emeritus of integrative biology and research at UC Berkeley, and an endocrinologist at the Cancer Research Laboratory, died Jan. 3 at his Berkeley home after a nine-month bout with cancer. He was 91.

With his colleague and friend Aubrey Gorbman, former zoology professor and department chairman at the University of Washington, Bern co-authored the definitive volume, A Textbook of Comparative Endocrinology, in 1962. It “contained concepts that were key to the development of the emerging field of comparative endocrinology and guided the thinking and careers of a vast number of scientists around the world,” according to colleague and friend Stacia A. Sower, professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at the University of New Hampshire.

Sower described Bern as “one of the most truly great scientists I have ever known. He was a giant and one of the founding fathers in our field of comparative endocrinology and he was the founding father of the field of endocrine disruptors.”

Bern was honored by UC Berkeley with the Distinguished Teaching Award in 1972 and the Berkeley Citation in 1990. He was elected on merit as a Member of the National Academy of Sciences, as a Fellow of the California Academy of Sciences, as a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and as a member of the American Association for the Advancement of Sciences.

Bern was also a member of the Indian National Science Academy, the National Society of Science, Arts, and Letters of Naples, Italy, and the Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei (Italy), in addition to numerous other American and foreign associations and institutions.

Bern received honorary doctorates around the world, including from the University of Rouen in France, and from Yokohama City and Toho University in Japan. In 1988, the American Society of Zoologists held a special symposium, “Evolving Concepts in Chemical Mediation,” in honor of Bern, and in 1990 the California Legislature cited him in the Assembly. In 2001, the Howard A. Bern Distinguished Lecture in Comparative Endocrinology was inaugurated by the Society of Integrative and Comparative Biology.

Bern was the author or co-author of around 600 scientific papers, and he was co-editor of seven books, from Progress in Comparative Endocrinology (with W.S. Hoar, Academic Press), to Applications of Endocrinology to Pacific Rim Aquaculture (with E. Chang and T Hirano, Elsevier), and Neurosecretion and the Biology of Neuropeptides (with H. Kobayashi and A. Urano, Japanese Scientific Societies Press).

As teacher of more than 46 PhD students, 36 MA students, thousands of undergraduates, and more than 90 postdoctoral fellows and visiting professors, Bern had a national and international reputation.

Bern’s greatest commitment was to his students and their development. His laboratories embraced diversity in all respects beginning in the late 1940s, long before our current view of diversity was formed. Diversity was never an area of controversy for Bern, as it was a fundamental premise of the inquiring environment. It extended to his supporting students arrested for their political actions during the Free Speech Movement, which he supported strongly. Students from every U.S. ethnic group and from all parts of the world worked in his labs.

As Bern wrote about creative teaching: “I consider creative teaching to lie primarily in the area of individual contact… A one-to-one relationship is indeed of value to the less motivated students, encouraging those of diverse backgrounds to identify with the idea of independent study and to enter domains (academic, professional) that they may have originally considered not open to them. These students often become indistinguishable from those who are initially certain of the paths they wish to follow. In both instances, professor and student learn from each other; it is a two-way interaction. An association becomes a friendship, often lasting far beyond the student’s tenure in the professor’s laboratory. The differences between professor and student that derive from age, gender, economic status, ethnicity, experience, philosophy, etc., assure that both will be exposed to new ideas and attitudes.”

Bern was mentor to dozens of students, and for this was nominated for a National Science Foundation Presidential Mentoring award in 2005. Many of his former students wrote letters supporting his candidacy. University of Florida zoologist Louis Guillette wrote: “He taught me that one’s legacy to science is not the work that you do, but the people you leave behind… When a National Academy of Sciences member tells you that a scientist’s biggest legacy is helping young people succeed, it truly means something.”

Bern was born in Montreal, Canada, on January 30, 1920, and lived with his family in Los Angeles from 1933. At 13, during the Great Depression, he became his family’s primary breadwinner. He received his BA in 1941 and his PhD in 1948 from the University of California, Los Angeles. He served in the military (Medical Department) in the Pacific during WWII (1942-6). He began as an instructor in the Zoology Department at Cal in 1948, and spent the rest of his career there.

Bern is survived by his wife of 65 years, Estelle; a sister, Judy Brooker of Palm Springs; a brother, Gordon Bern of Laguna Hills; two children, Lauren Bern (John Bell) of Madison, Wisconsin, and Alan Bern (Alice Abarbanel) of Berkeley; six grandchildren, Jesse Bell Bern, Jake Bern, Emma Bell Bern, Ben Bell Bern, Amanda Abarbanel-Rice, and Allison Bell Bern; and two great grandchildren, Ezra Colton Abarbanel and Ariel Zeiler Abarbanel.

Donations may be made in memory of Professor Howard A. Bern to Doctors without Borders, or call their office at (212) 763-5779.

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