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Alumni Profile

Stanley S. Bergen Jr.: New Jersey’s Health Crusader Looks Back with Pride

By Peter Wortsman

Dr. Bergen “relaxing” on his feet
Dr. Bergen “relaxing” on his feet
HEALTHSTATE, the magazine of the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, ran a three-page photographic spread on Stanley S. Bergen Jr.’55 in its Spring-Summer 1998 issue. The tribute was occasioned by news of his retirement (effective June 30, 1998) as president of UMDNJ, an institution he helped found 27 years ago and built “from an obscure medical college operating out of a trailer” (Sunday Star Ledger) into the largest free-standing public university of health sciences in the nation.

It all but takes your breath away just to scan the snapshots of Dr. Bergen in action. There he is breaking ground on the Newark campus in 1972, officiating at commencement, conferring with local community leaders, lobbying state legislators on pressing health care issues, personally presenting an ever expanding network of facilities and clinics to a virtual who’s who of movers and shakers (including two U.S. presidents, three New Jersey governors, a New Jersey senator, and a mayor of Newark), and jogging at dawn, his favorite form of “relaxation.”

A President’s Prescription

The pictures tell another story too. Look again and you notice that while the VIPs come and go, it’s in the company of the unheralded citizens of his home state that Dr. Bergen is most himself. Were it not for the cap and gown in a 1991 commencement shot of the president handing out a diploma, you’d swear he was a country doctor dispensing a prescription.

For 27 years, the diploma has indeed been Dr. Bergen’s prescription of choice for the health and vitality of the people of New Jersey. In graduating hundreds of doctors, dentists, nurses, and other health professionals (many from modest economic backgrounds and a large number of minorities), UMDNJ has simultaneously been caring for its own and stirring economic growth in the state with close to 12,000 university-related jobs. Moreover, innovative community-oriented programs, like the Violence Institute of New Jersey (a Bergen brainchild), which employs educational principles to “vaccinate” against violent behavior, makes the institution what its founder likes to call “a laboratory for discovering solutions.”

Physician to the Bone

Dr. Bergen is a little late for a scheduled interview. A knee injury suffered while running finally demanded diagnosis and treatment. He was scheduled for an MRI, but a child in serious condition was wheeled in at the last minute and the president emeritus gladly let himself be bumped from the head of the line. Some would call that health care rationing; Bergen calls it “only human.” A physician to the bone, he has devoted his life to the care of others and he’s not about to stop now.

As to the knee: “I may have to cut back on the running,” he shrugs, a considerable sacrifice for this tall, lanky Type A+ personality who, at 69, can’t sit still.

If ever the institution sought a fitting plaque to honor its founder, an imprint of his care-worn face would tell it all. While a forehead full of well-earned wrinkles angles downward, Dr. Bergen keeps his unwavering gaze locked on his interlocutor. The expression is no-nonsense, albeit kindly, more reminiscent of an old-fashioned family practitioner in a Norman Rockwell painting than of the driven academic medical administrator he is. The paradox is telling. In fact, he got his first taste of medicine as a young kid tagging along on weekend house calls with his revered grandfather, Dr. Elston H. Bergen (P&S 1877), a Princeton, N.J., general practitioner. (“Hurry up, Stanley, we’ve got to get to the hospital!”) The memory still makes him raise his chin and stretch his long legs, ready for action.

Can the president of a mammoth academic medical enterprise like UMDNJ, with seven schools on five campuses in one of the country’s most densely populated states, be likened to a GP with his hand on the pulse and his eyes on the big picture?

“I’ve always had that feeling about this institution,” Dr. Bergen readily concurs, “that we were a family trying to help others. I just love it when I drive up in the morning and the guard greets me, ‘Hi, Dr. Bergen, how are you today!’ We’re a tight-knit family working together for the community, a town within a town.”

An Administrator with a Difference

Asked if the essential qualities required of the head of an academic health care enterprise differ from those of high level administrators in business or other fields, Dr. Bergen replies with a definite “Yes!”

“I may be old-fashioned,” he allows, “but I don’t believe that either higher education or health care can be considered a business. Of course, you have to apply business principles; you’ve got to be held accountable for where the money goes. But people are our product at UMDNJ, graduates and patients, and people can never be commodities. This place has got to be run by somebody with a physician’s instincts of caring and service, a sense of duty to give back something to the community.”

Dr. Bergen with Newark Mayor Ken Gibson and New Jersey Gov. Brendan Byrne in 1972
Dr. Bergen with Newark Mayor Ken Gibson and New Jersey Gov. Brendan Byrne in 1972
Giving Back to the Community

New Jersey born and bred, Stanley Bergen took his undergraduate degree from Princeton before crossing the Hudson to earn his medical stripes at P&S under the aegis of Robert Loeb. “Loeb may have scared the living daylights out of many of us,” he recalls, “but he had an uncanny ability to extract the best, to shape you into a precise physician who constantly had the patient’s best interest on your mind and in your heart.”

Interning in medicine at St. Luke’s Hospital, where he was subsequently named chief resident and Francis S. Zabriski Fellow, Dr. Bergen became interested in diabetes and worked under Dr. Theodore Van Itallie in some of the early studies of oronasal albutimide. He was put in charge of the hospital’s diabetes clinic, his first major administrative responsibility. A fascination for the nutritional aspects of diabetes made him increasingly aware of the social side of medical care, leading him to community medicine.

Following two years of military service as an Army medical officer at Fort Jay Army Hospital on Governor’s Island, he became medical director of the St. Luke’s Convalescent Hospital in Greenwich, Conn. In 1964 he was recruited as director of medicine at Cumberland Hospital and chief of community medicine at the Brooklyn-Cumberland Medical Center.

It was there, while trying to coordinate health care in a populous inner city neighborhood, where people were often compelled to wait hours for a doctor, that he fathomed the extent of the problem. Following the passage of a legislated change (nicknamed “the Ghetto Medicine Bill”) in New York State’s health care delivery system under Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, Dr. Bergen vividly remembers an altercation with a patient, a formidable woman who buttonholed him in the waiting room: “You smart guys have gone and changed the system on us again. You’re just trying to make it harder for us to get care for our kids. Well, let me tell you something, Mister, it took you months to change the system, it’ll take us 24 hours to beat it!” Dr. Bergen was speechless. “When people have to connive just to get the basic primary care they need,” he points out, “something is very wrong with the system.”

In a paper titled “Community Medicine: Method or Myth,” published in the Winter 1970 issue of the P&S Quarterly (the predecessor of P&S Journal), Dr. Bergen asked, “Why does a country so sophisticated, so technically developed, so medically knowledgeable continually fail to succeed in improving its health status?” Almost three decades later, he sees no real improvement: “We still have the best, and in some cases, the most marginal health care in the world. It’s just mind-boggling, the sophisticated technology we have to deal with the molecular basis of disease, and yet on the other hand, the fact that there are Americans today who don’t receive the basic vaccinations we all take for granted.” The current nationwide trend to shrink the public hospital system, in his view, is changing the situation from bad to worse.

When New York City decided in 1970 to revamp its health and hospitals administration, his administrative talents at Cumberland and levelheaded leadership as chairman of a medical advisory committee for the entire city hospitals system brought him to the attention of City Hall. Named senior vice president for medical and professional affairs of the newly created New York City Health and Hospitals Corporation, under Mayor John V. Lindsay, his tenure was cut short by the offer to build an academic medical center practically from scratch across the Hudson—an offer he could not refuse.

New Jersey Gets Its Own Medical School, At Last

There had been a string of unsuccessful attempts in the past (one in colonial times by Dr. Nicholas Romayne, later a member of the P&S faculty) to create a medical school on Jersey soil. In 1956, Seton Hall Medical and Dental School was founded as a small private Catholic institution but soon ran into financial difficulties. Instead of bailing the school out with public funds, New Jersey Gov. Richard Hughes decided to create a commission to explore the feasibility of the state taking charge. The commission, headed by Johnson & Johnson president George Smith, gave him the green light.

Based in Newark, the planned new facility faced a trial by fire in the riots of 1968. In an atmosphere of social unrest and general distrust, it wasn’t easy to convince members of the community that the new medical center, for which they forfeited land, would be in their own best interest.

Dr. Bergen, who came aboard in 1971 and worked out of a trailer as the first president of the College of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, recalls the view from his window as “a cold devastated area like one of the bombed-out cities of Europe after the war.”

A decade later the institution, comprising seven schools on four campuses, was officially upgraded by the state to the status of university. Today with an operating budget of $653 million, UMDNJ is made up of the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School in Piscataway, New Brunswick, and Camden; the School of Osteopathic Medicine in Stratford; and the New Jersey Medical School, Dental School, School of Nursing, School of Health Related Professions, and Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences, all in Newark. An eighth division offering graduate degrees in public health and joint degrees from Rutgers University and the New Jersey Institute of Technology will open this year.

Stanley S. Bergen Jr.’55 at the 1991 UMDNJ commencement
Stanley S. Bergen Jr.’55 at the 1991 UMDNJ commencement
Throughout Dr. Bergen’s tenure, it has been difficult to distinguish the founder from the institution. Giving his all, he also took licks for his leadership style. And while he has been credited for his absolute commitment and unselfish motives, as well as a political savvy that saw the school through five governors, a profile that appeared in the Sunday Star-Ledger, when news broke of his retirement, depicted a man with an obsession and quoted one university trustee who found him “rigid and imperious.”

Still no one would question that Dr. Bergen’s benign obsession served the institution and the people of New Jersey. “I’m a very intense person . . . a very stubborn person at times,” he acknowledges in the same profile, “but I’m also a fierce advocate for UMDNJ.”

Among his proudest accomplishments, as outlined in a 1994 interview in the New York Times, Dr. Bergen cites the school’s preeminence in teaching and research (UMDNJ was subsequently ranked among the 100 top-funded research universities in the country), its leadership in educating minority physicians and dentists, and the success of the physician assistant program, which he championed. Other Bergen initiatives include the Cancer Institute of New Jersey (one of only 14 clinical care centers designated by the National Cancer Institute); the Violence Institute of New Jersey, an interdisciplinary experiment in combining good medicine and education with social action; and the soon to be established International Center for Public Health, a world-class infectious disease research complex.

The recipient of countless encomia, including the Governor’s Award (“the Pride of New Jersey”) and honorary degrees from the New Jersey Institute of Technology, William Patterson University, Ramapo College, Princeton University, Stevens Institute of Technology, and Bloomfield College, Dr. Bergen has weighed in on the national debate on health care reform. A board member of the American Hospital Association, he also served as an adviser to President Clinton’s health care reform task force. He is one of his home state’s leading advocates of cost containment and cost effectiveness in the delivery of health care services. Following his official retirement, he assumed the voluntary position of chairman of the board of the Hastings Center, a biomedical ethics institute with which he has long been affiliated.

In his student application to P&S, he described the evolution of his medical motive from a “desire to an ambition.” Looking back years later in his response to a P&S alumni questionnaire, he wrote, “While I occasionally long for the days of patient care, I believe that each career takes its turns, either because of subconscious desires . . . or forces external to our control . . . ”

Subconsciously motivated or externally driven, now with a little more time to spend with his wife, Suzanne (a nurse he met at St. Luke’s Hospital), Stanley Bergen continues to be a powerful force for good.

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