Howard A. Bern, Founding Father in the Field of Endocrinology

By Alan Bern
Friday January 06, 2012 - 01:16:00 PM

Howard A. Bern, Professor (Emeritus) of Integrative Biology and Research Endocrinologist, Cancer Research Laboratory, University of California, Berkeley, died at his home, after a nine-month bout with cancer, in Berkeley, California, January 3, 2012, at the age of 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 (Wiley), in 1962, which, according to colleague and friend Stacia A. Sower, Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, University of New Hampshire, “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.” Sower describes Bern as “one of the most truly great scientists I have ever known. He is a giant and one of the founding fathers in our field of comparative endocrinology and he is the founding father of the field of endocrine disruptors.” 

Bern was honored with the Distinguished Teaching Award in 1972 and the Berkeley Citation in 1990 at the University of California, Berkeley. He was elected on merit as a Member of the National Academy of Sciences, and as a Fellow of the California Academy of Sciences, as a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and of the American Association for the Advancement of Sciences; he 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 the University of Rouen (France), Yokohama City, Japan, and Toho University, Japan. In 1988 the American Society of Zoologists held a special Symposium, "Evolving Concepts in Chemical Mediation," in honor of Professor Howard A. Bern, and in 1990 the California Legislature cited him in the Assembly Members Resolution No. 966 commending Professor Howard A. Bern. 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 is 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). Teacher of over forty-six Ph.D. students, thirty-six M.A. students, thousands of undergraduates, and more than ninety postdoctoral fellows and visiting professors, Professor Bern had a national and international reputation beyond compare among biologists. 

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 as in the case of the Free Speech Movement, which he also 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 the National Science Foundation Presidential Mentoring award in 2005, a nomination which meant as much to him as any of the awards he received. Many of his former students wrote letters supporting his candidacy for this prestigious award. University of Florida zoologist Louis Guillette, a protégé, wrote of him: “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, California, beginning in 1933, for whom he was a primary breadwinner during the Great Depression beginning at the age of fourteen. He received his B.A. in 1941 and his Ph.D. 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 the University of California, Berkeley, 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, California; a brother, Gordon Bern of Laguna Hills, California; two children, Lauren Bern (John Bell) of Madison, Wisconsin, and Alan Bern (Alice Abarbanel) of Berkeley, California; 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.