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For decades, he’s been called the “father of the Texas Medical Center.”
Take a look at the streets through the Texas Medical Center bearing the names of many of our community’s forefathers. Bertner Avenue stands out above all others as the main artery running through the very heart of the medical center, a 1 ½ mile-stretch connecting the Jesse H. Jones Library Building to the north and The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) South Campus to the south.
One could say the reach of Bertner the avenue is as long as the reach of Bertner the man.
So who was Dr. Ernst William Bertner – Bill or Billy as his friends called him – with the moniker, “father of the Texas Medical Center?”
Providing the medical vision
While Monroe Dunaway Anderson left his fortune to purchase the 134 acres behind Hermann Hospital in the early 1940s, it was Ernst Bertner, the physician trained at The University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston (UTMB) who provided the medical vision for Anderson’s foundation trustees, John Freeman, William Bates and Horace Wilkins. That vision guided these trustees to convert Anderson’s basic intent to leave his money to support Houston and health care into an action plan in the immediate years after Anderson’s death in 1939.
Bertner in the early 1940’s was a man of action himself. He was one of Houston’s leading physicians and was highly respected in medical circles throughout the country. He served as president of the Harris County Medical Society and the Texas Medical Association. As a talented physician specialized in treating gynecologic cancer, he served as chief-of-staff at Hermann and by 1942 was named acting director of the new M.D. Anderson Hospital for Cancer Research.
It was Bertner who dedicated the new cancer hospital on Feb. 17, 1944, at its first temporary home known as “the Oaks.” The University of Texas System Board of Regents had purchased the six-acre property and home on Baldwin Street near downtown from the estate of Capt. James A. Baker, Sr., grandfather of former U.S. Secretary of State, James A. Baker, III. Here, M.D. Anderson, the hospital, was launched while a permanent facility was planned for the forest that would become the Texas Medical Center – the “medical city” we now know. By 1946 Bertner handed over the fledgling temporary cancer hospital at the Oaks to Dr. R. Lee Clark who led our sister health component, The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, to become one of the leading comprehensive cancer centers in the world.
Bertner was named first director (now president) of the Texas Medical Center to guide the development of the fledgling medical center. Not to be forgotten is Fred Elliott, dean of the Texas Dental College that in 1943 became what is today the UTHealth School of Dentistry. When Bertner died in 1950, it was Elliott who stepped in to direct the medical center’s continued growth.
William Kellar’s book, Enduring Legacy (Texas A&M University Press, 2014), is well worth reading and provides a rich and comprehensive overview of the Bertner/Elliott years as both worked closely with M.D. Anderson Foundation trustees to build the Texas Medical Center.
The role Bertner played in the development of the medical center is quite a story. Yet, it’s the story behind that story that I find most interesting.
The rest of the story
Ernst Bertner was born on Aug. 18, 1889, in far West Texas in a small railroad town known as Colorado City. His father, Gus, was a German immigrant who ran a barber shop and later sold life insurance successfully for the New York Life Insurance. In 1904 Ernst was sent to the New Mexico Military Institute for his high school years given his father felt his sometimes rowdy son needed a bit more discipline.
Returning to Colorado City, young Bertner was given a drugstore to run. His father had purchased the store in hopes the responsibility and focus of running a store would build character. And it did. Ernst took to the challenge and flourished. He was especially interested in how the pharmaceuticals he sold his customers worked. He enrolled in The University of Texas School of Pharmacy in Galveston before switching interests to medicine at the UTMB.
In 1907, Bertner arrived home in Colorado City from UTMB for winter break and received a telegram from his dean that he had failed four of his six subjects. According to Kellar, Dean William S. Carter even suggested Bertner should “resign” from medical school due to his poor performance and find another line of work.
Needless to say it was a very low moment but Ernst Bertner did not drop out. Instead he returned sheepishly by train to Galveston and buckled down and applied himself. He turned his grades around, restored his dean’s confidence, and graduated from UTMB in 1911. Postgraduate training in New York City ensued at several hospitals including an internship at St. Vincent’s Hospital. What are the odds that of all the patients he could have been assigned in New York City, one of his first patients was Jesse H. Jones, also known as “Mr. Houston?”
Jones took a liking to Bertner and made him an offer that was hard to refuse. Jones’s proposition was for Bertner to return to Houston and become the house physician for the Rice Hotel he was building. Bertner returned to Houston in July 1913 and would live with his wife Julia Williams in the Rice Hotel throughout his life. They had no children. In the Rice Hotel the Bertners remained close friends with Jesse Jones and were well acquainted with many other Houston movers and shakers including Monroe Anderson and his trusted colleagues who would one day oversee the Anderson fortune and foundation. Anderson’s trustees needed the advice and guidance of a highly respected physician, and Bertner, as the old adage goes, was in the right place at the right time.
How different things could’ve been
How different the story of the Texas Medical Center might have turned out if a young medical student known to his friends as Bill or Billy Bertner had dropped out of medical school when his failing grades and wandering attention nearly ended his medical career. And what are the odds that Billy Bertner would go from a failing medical student to one of the most respected physicians in Houston who had met Jesse Jones in New York City by chance and ended up guiding the creation of the Texas Medical Center?
As a Houston physician with a busy practice, it was Bertner himself who safely delivered into this world on Aug. 22, 1920, a future heart surgeon we know as Dr. Denton A. Cooley. That the Denton A. Cooley Building—Texas Heart Institute stands proudly on Bertner Avenue adds one more interesting historical twist to the legacy of both icons.
Perhaps Homer P. Rainey, former president of The University of Texas at Austin, best summarized Bertner’s importance to The University of Texas System and the Texas Medical Center on Feb. 17, 1944, as he dedicated the new M.D. Anderson Hospital on the grounds of its first temporary home, the Oaks.
“The beginnings of the work which we see here today are due almost entirely to Doctor Bertner’s leadership, and I am happy to extend to him on behalf of The University and the medical profession generally our sincere appreciation for his efforts,” Rainey said.
Rainey had good reasons for his accolades. If ever there was a fatherly gesture made in our Texas Medical Center history, it has to be Bertner’s response when the UT System regents first offered him the job as acting director of the new cancer hospital. “The university offered Bertner a salary of $10,000, but he graciously declined and instead asked that the funds be applied to the operating account to help get the new hospital opened,” Kellar wrote in his book.
Safe to say, naming the longest street that runs through the heart of our medical center after Ernst Bertner is an honor he more than deserves. Ernst Bertner died on July 28, 1950, at 61 after a prolonged battle with cancer. Jesse Jones visited his home almost daily to check on his dear friend. How fitting to think of Mr. Houston and the father of the Texas Medical Center together comparing notes, reliving their lives, and wondering what would become of the city and medical center they had invested so much of their collective talent and imagination to build.
‘Bout Time is about connecting our past to our present. Dr. Bryant Boutwell is the John P. McGovern Professor of Oslerian Medicine at the McGovern Center for Humanities and Ethics and a Distinguished Teaching Professor. He is the author of two books on the history of Houston and the Texas Medical Center and writes this column to share the stories of our past—stories that define who we are and how we got here.
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