Commentary: Remembering 'Bernie': A. Bernard Ackerman, M.D., left legacy of humanism, academic contributions

March 1, 2009

"I have felt professional losses in my life before. When the founding dean of my fledging medical school died unexpectedly, I was distraught for weeks. "

Key Points

Attending his memorial service, and listening to some of his colleagues and my mentors relate very personal stories that dealt with some aspect of this truly remarkable man's life and the impact he had on each one of the speakers, helped me.

Enough time eventually passed that the acute grief I felt lifted, and I no longer thought about him on a daily or even weekly basis.

Not only did he always seem to me to be so full of life and so very enthusiastic about some recent discovery he had made and his desire to share that new understanding with others, it just seemed to me like he would always be there.

Bernie was the proverbial "Energizer bunny," always in the audience at some conference or another, waiting for a chance to teach us all something new or a different way to look at things.

Catharsis

I didn't have the opportunity to attend Bernie's memorial, so the pain I felt at his passing has lingered. So, more as catharsis for me than a tribute to Bernie, I wanted to share several interactions I had with him over the years as my personal contribution to his memorial.

Bernie came on the national stage at about the time I was finishing my dermatopathology fellowship, and I eagerly read his first seminal textbook cover to cover, as if it were a novel. His approach to understanding dermatopathology was so unique and different that, for me, it brought a whole new understanding and approach to interpreting microscopic findings.

Even though I hadn't met him at that time, I knew him by reputation, of course, and respected him. I also heard the stories about his ability to be eloquent and polite while simultaneously eviscerating someone who failed to see the wisdom of what Bernie was saying, using that incredible vocabulary of his.

Eloquent, polite

My first interaction with Bernie came shortly after I completed my dermatopathology fellowship, and my chair requested that I make a presentation at the next annual meeting of the American Society for Dermatopathology.

I wasn't very keen on this idea, as the case I was requested to present was in a group of poorly differentiated benign lymphoproliferative disorders that was only just beginning to be understood and subcategorized.

I was virtually certain that my youth and the controversial nature of the topic would result in a largely negative groundswell of responses by those in attendance, and that I would be left quivering at the podium in a puddle of my own human reaction.

So, on the big day, I got up nervously and gave my presentation. Upon my completion, there was a rush to the microphones by audience members who assailed me at length, letting me know in no uncertain terms that I had missed the most important pathologic features of the disease and that - as memory serves - I should have never considered making such a presentation! To put a point on it, I was simply WRONG!!!

Just when I thought things couldn't get any worse, I saw Bernie, with his shiny bald head reflecting light from the projector, rise up in the back of the darkened room and slowly make his way to the nearest microphone.

Feeling certain by then that I was about to suffer additional emotional damage to my psyche, I braced myself for the worst. I held on to the podium as Bernie began speaking and prepared myself for what I was sure would be the onslaught of his mellifluous but cutting words.

While I can't actually recall what he said, I do remember him being very positive about my presentation and him taking my side in this debate. I felt vindicated!

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