Robert M. Berne M.D. (April 22, 1918 – October 4, 2001), former chairman of the Department of Physiology at the University of Virginia Medical Center, died Thursday, Oct. 4, 2001 at his home in Charlottesville, VA. Dr. Berne was a man of many accomplishments: a devoted and steadfast husband, a loving father and grandfather, a leader of the University of Virginia, and a scientist of world class. He touched family, friends, scientific colleagues, and many through whose life he passed, especially those whose growth he nurtured.

Born in Yonkers, New York, he grew up and was schooled in Brooklyn. Though a successful student in his early years, he remained proud of being a street kid from the city. This showed in his zest for competition, and his easy way with all those he met. From his high school days he was an avid sportsman, initially with a deep love for horseback riding, and later for tennis and fishing, both of which he pursued with love and intellect as he did so many things. Like other thoughtful, creative people, he spent the last of his adolescence in semi-isolation, confined to bed with tuberculosis. When that time passed he launched on a process of intellectual and professional development that was to last throughout his life.

He chose to leave New York urban life for the South, and attended college in Chapel Hill, N.C where he earned a Phi Beta Kappa key while having his share of fun (Annual Review of Physiology 60: 1- 18, 1998). He then entered Harvard Medical School with the class of 1943, and immediately showed a life long inclination toward experimental research and scholarly activity. Hard work and intelligence paid off and in the spring of 1943 he was admitted to a rotating internship at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. During this time, he became engaged to, and married Beth Goldberg, who was to be his constant companion and collaborator for the remainder of his life. In late 1944 he became a medical officer with the U.S. Army, and quickly adapted to army life, and even thrived in this difficult environment (ibid). With the end of the war he returned to Mount Sinai for a residency in Internal Medicine, which led him to his ultimate career in cardiology and the study of the cardiovascular system. Dr. Carl Wiggers accepted Dr. Berne into his fellowship program in Cleveland, and with that act Dr. Wiggers accomplished two things. He launched Bob on an incredibly successful research career and, to quote from their textbook, he introduced Bob to his other life-long collaborator and friend, Matthew Levy.

The fellowship years set his career on a new course by leading him to a life-long commitment to teaching and research. He first accepted a position on the physiology faculty of Western Reserve University in Cleveland in 1949 where he remained for 17 years. Bob thrived in the University atmosphere. It offered him an opportunity to teach in a new medical curriculum and to conduct his research as his inclinations dictated.

His early research with Matthew Levy led him ultimately to an area of investigation that established and sustained him as a pre-eminent researcher. In 1963 Dr. Berne published a paper, somewhat speculative at the time, proposing a possible role for the chemical adenosine in the control of blood flow to the heart. This work set a direction for the next 4 decades of his research program, and that program was strongly shaped by his colleague and friend Dr. Rafael Rubio who came from Mexico to be a continuing part of the Berne laboratory.

In addition to his research, the family was growing with the addition of two daughters, Amy and Julie and later two sons, Gordon and Michael and ultimately with the addition of 8 grandchildren: Maggie, Molly, and Cris Speasmaker, Sarah and Alex Kaminshine, Ari and Kyle Berne, and Kayla Berne. Throughout his life the family remained a focal point in his life with summers spent in Woods Hole and Christmases and Thanksgiving in Charlottesville.

With the growing recognition of his outstanding research and teaching, Dr. Berne was invited to become the chairman of Physiology at the University of Virginia. His charge was to be part of a major initiative in developing basic medical research at UVa. With quiet strength and gentle leadership, he built one of the premier physiology departments in the world, serving as Charles M. Slaughter Professor of Physiology for the next 22 years and as an emeritus professor of Physiology until his death. He often remarked that his job as chair was initially made easy by his association with a most competent and dedicated group of people including the Dean (Ken Crispell); and the new chairs of Anatomy (Jan Langman), Microbiology (Robert Wagner), and especially his dear friend and chairman of Biochemistry (Thomas Thompson).

Adenosine became recognized as a molecule with wide ranging biological importance, and this provided a focus for research by hundreds of investigators throughout the world. In the ’80’s and the 90’s his work on adenosine took on new life with the recognition that, in addition to its role in regulation of cardiac blood flow, the molecule plays a key role in the control of a multitude of biological processes. A fellow in the laboratory, Luiz Bellardinelli, worked with Dr. Berne’s group to discover that adenosine plays a key role in regulating heart rhythms. This discovery led directly to a patent for a clinical application for adenosine as Adenocard, and widespread use of the drug throughout the world. Under Bob’s leadership, the major portions of the royalties from this patent were returned to the University of Virginia, and used to establish and endow the Cardiovascular Research Center, and the Robert M. Berne chair in Cardiovascular Research.

His research and teaching yielded more than 200 scientific articles and three textbooks authored with Matthew Levy. In the process of building his department and research programs, he trained dozens of graduate students and post-doctoral fellows, who later populated the academic community with senior professors and chairs of departments. In addition, his unflagging support of the other faculty in the department helped many of them to rise to prominence as well. Truly leadership, above all, was a skill of Dr. Berne’s that many might emulate.

The huge impact of Dr. Berne’s work was recognized in many ways. He was the President of the American Physiological Society in 1972, elected to the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Science in 1979, received the Gold Heart award of the American Heart Association in 1985, and was elected to the National Academy of Science in 1988. In 1994 he assumed professor emeritus status and focused his professional energies on his books, and also re-energized his long-standing interests in fishing, tennis, guitar playing, and travel. He occupied office space in the Cardiovascular Research Center that he played so critical a role in founding, and continued to mentor everyone from secretaries to senior faculty in his usual way.

Ultimately, his illness was met with the same grace and dignity that characterized all his other activities and he accepted the uncertain future, as he had accepted his opportunities. He has been a friend and role model, and a driving force, and all of us will sorely miss him.

Memorial donations may be made to the Robert M. Berne Educational Fund, CVRC University of Virginia, PO Box 801394, 415 Lane Rd, MR-5 Building, Room 1010, Charlottesville, 22908

Call Paul Orange at 434-243-9442, or email at, for additional information.