Barnet Berris (Barney)

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Marie Fine, Thelma Rosen

Dr. Barnet (Barney) Berris, University of Toronto Professor of Medicine and Chief of Medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital from 1964 to 1977, died on October 5, 2009 at the age of 88. Barney was widely recognized as one of the University of Toronto’s outstanding general internists and one of the best clinical teachers of his generation. No-one was more responsible for the transformation of Mount Sinai from a community hospital providing excellent clinical care to a full member of the University of Toronto Academic Health Science Centre with first rate teaching and research programs.” So begins a memoir written by Dr. Arnie Aberman former Dean, Faculty of Medicine, University of Toronto.

Barney was academically in the top ten students in a class of 127 in the University of Toronto Medical School. Yet his application for internship at the Toronto General Hospital was denied. Constant denials left him gloomy and frustrated. It turned out that at that time (1944) there was a quota of only two Jewish interns; Barney was #3. He subsequently interned at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Toronto, a non-teaching but good community hospital. Following a year in the army he went to the United States and completed four years of internal medicine training at the University of Minnesota where in his final year he was chief medical resident under the iconic Cecil Watson, Chair of the Department of Medicine. Barney had very fond memories of his years in Minneapolis and attributed his interest in applying basic science to clinical medicine to Dr. Watson. While in Minneapolis Barney did research on the effect of cold on blood pressure for which he received the MSc degree.

In 1950 Barney returned to Toronto, first as a Fellow and then in 1951 as the first Jewish physician on the staff of the Department of Medicine, Toronto General Hospital. The recommendation for the latter appointment came from the Physician-in-chief, Dr. Ray Farquharson. When some opposition to the appointment surfaced, Dr. Farquharson said he would resign if it did not go through. The appointment went through. From 1951 to 1964 Barney continued as a practicing internist and clinical teacher at the Toronto General Hospital. In his 2001 autobiography titled “Medicine: My Story” Barney said, “One of my great joys in medicine was teaching medical students and interns what I consider to be the basic requirements of being a good doctor: how to take a complete history from a patient, how to do a complete examination and the process of arriving at the correct diagnosis.”

In 1964 Barney crossed University Avenue to become the Chief of Medicine at the new Mount Sinai Hospital and a full Professor in the Department of Medicine, University of Toronto. Over the next thirteen years he transformed the Mount Sinai Department of Medicine into a first class academic department. “During those years the restrictive admissions and appointment policies in the Faculty of Medicine and its teaching hospitals were abandoned and men and women of diverse religious and ethnic groups were welcomed.” (Aberman)

After Barney stepped down as chief of medicine in 1977, he continued to be an active internist and clinical teacher at the Sinai until he retired in 1995 at age 74. An interesting note about his care of patients is to be found in the following remark in his autobiography: “I made certain that if patients were dying in the hospital, I would spend time with them daily. I also thought it was important to spend time with family members who might be visiting to keep them informed about the progress of the illness and to reassure them that we were doing everything possible to keep them comfortable.” During this period, 1977 to 1995, Barney was also active in research. In 1971 he had joined Dr. Victor Feinman’s liver study unit at Mount Sinai Hospital and over the next two decades he and Victor jointly published some thirty papers, largely on hepatitis, in peer-reviewed medical journals.

Barney’s mother was born in Poland, his father in Russia. In 1944 he married Marie Fine, a social worker, who died of ovarian cancer in 1977 – the year Barney stepped down as Chief of Medicine. Barney was proud of their three children - Ken, an internist in Ottawa; Catherine, a landscape architect in Vancouver; and Diana, a translator in Ottawa. In 1984 he married Thelma Rosen, a journalist, and soon after they spent a sabbatical year with Barney teaching in university hospitals in Singapore, England (London), and the United States (Stanford).

Barney received many honours including the Barnet Berris Annual Lectureship in Medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital and the Barnet Berris Chair of Cancer Research at the Weizmann Institute, Israel. But the honour which meant the most to him came in 1998 when the Wightman Academy of the University of Toronto, Faculty of Medicine was renamed the Wightman-Berris Academy in recognition of Barney’s many contributions to his medical school.

And so ends a brief tale of a staunch friend and colleague, soft-spoken and outwardly calm, but firm and rock-solid in his ideals and convictions, an incomparable teacher and physician.


Career Achievements

Wightman-Berris Academy Named

Barnet Berris Annual Lectureship in Medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital

Barnet Berris Chair of Cancer Research at the Weizmann Institute, Israel


Excerpt written by: Dr. Jack Laidlaw


Barnett, Henry, Joan Borland, Jack Laidlaw, Neil Watters and Bruce Wells. The Epic Journey of University of Toronto Medical Class of 1944. Toronto: University of Toronto, Faculty of Medince, 2012. pg. 21.

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