By Bryant Boutwell and Charles M. Balch
He is known as the father of the Texas Medical Center, and for good reason. Dr. Ernst William Bertner (Bill or Billy to his friends) was one of the most respected physicians of his day. Born on Aug. 18, 1889, in the West Texas town of Colorado City, he was the son of a German immigrant who ran a barber shop and sold insurance. Billy was a somewhat rambunctious boy, and his family sent him to the New Mexico Military Institute (NMMI) to gain the discipline his father felt he lacked.
After graduating from NMMI, the gregarious teen found his calling at a drug store his father bought for him to oversee. It was a place friends liked to gather and a service for his town — both appealed to his senses. Soon his eyes were set on pharmacy school in Galveston, the home of The University of Texas’ medical department. Upon arrival, he switched to medicine and joined a fraternity. The latter was almost his undoing. His grades followed him home that first holiday break along with a note from Dean William S. Carter advising him to get with his studies or “find another line of work.” Rather than give up, Bertner returned to Galveston and convinced his dean he would do less socializing and more studying. Good thing: He buckled down and graduated at the top of his class in 1911.
For his postgraduate training, he went to New York for an internship at St. Vincent’s Hospital where one day Dr. George D. Stewart assigned him to serve as the anesthetist for a minor procedure on a Houston patient in town on business. That patient, Jesse Jones, was known as “Mr. Houston” because he built many of the city’s largest buildings and owned the Houston Chronicle as well. The chance meeting changed the trajectory of Bertner’s medical career. Impressed by the young Texan, Jones offered Bertner a job as house physician in the Rice Hotel, a hotel with residential accommodations he would open in 1913 at 909 Texas Ave. on the former site of the Capitol of the Republic of Texas (1837-1839). Bertner returned to Houston in 1913 and married the love of his life, Julia Williams. They lived the rest of their lives in Jones’ Rice Hotel and remained close friends with Jones and his wife, Mary Gibbs.
The Sept. 13, 1913, Bulletin of the Harris County Medical Society was first to announce Bertner’s Houston practice in the Carter Building, the tallest building in Texas when it opened in 1910 at 806 Main. Later that month he was elected to membership in the society. It was his entry into a lifetime of service in professional organizations. A talented physician with additional training in gynecology and cancer care, Ernst Bertner emerged as both a highly respected physician and civic leader and well-connected medical authority.
Bertner was the key medical adviser to the trustees of Monroe Anderson’s foundation. Living down the hall from John Freeman at the Rice Hotel, Bertner also was a visionary for Freeman, William Bates and Horace Wilkins, whose responsibility was to do “good deeds” with the late Monroe Anderson’s fortune. Bertner provided the medical guidance underlying the concept and development of the Texas Medical Center, pouring his heart and soul into the plans to turn a 134-acre forest into a Texas-size medical city unlike any other in the nation.
It was Ernst Bertner who brought Denton Cooley into this world on Aug. 22, 1920, noting it was one of the most difficult breached births of his career. Cooley used to regale his friends with the story, causing his longtime surgical colleague, Dr. Bud Frazier, to quip, “Yes, Bertner said Denton’s head was too big.”
Bertner advised Cooley to get a “Plan B” and change medical schools from UTMB in Galveston (during the Dr. John Spies faculty turmoil) to Johns Hopkins in Baltimore. Bertner also voiced strong support to bring Cooley, Michael DeBakey and R. Lee Clark to the new Texas Medical Center. His moniker, Father of the Texas Medical Center, is well-deserved.
Bertner had been one of the first physicians in Houston to volunteer for military service in 1917, serving as a lieutenant with the Royal Army Medical Corps before transferring to the American Expeditionary Force where he rose to the rank of major. Wounded by German shrapnel, he returned to duty only to escape additional attacks that killed most of his fellow medical officers. The war broadened his vision as well as his friendships, including Major E. L. Keyes Jr., a leading urologist in New York, and Col. Hugh H. Young, chairman of urology at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. Both were lifelong friends and mentors.
His war experiences also told him he needed more training in surgery, gynecology and urology, so he spent 1921 at Johns Hopkins before returning to his Houston private practice. By 1935, he was chief of staff at Hermann Hospital and Jeff Davis Hospital, serving on multiple surgical staffs including Memorial Hospital and the Southern Pacific Hospital, a hospital that in time would serve as an M.D. Anderson rehabilitation facility. He was a major force in Houston medicine in his day and an influential medical leader in local and state professional organizations including the Texas Medical Association.
As head of the UTMB alumni association in the early 1940s, he supported UTMB’s dean, Dr. John Spies, and the legislation creating the new cancer hospital. Following Spies’ firing, the UT System Board of Regents accepted the M.D. Anderson Foundation offer to place the cancer hospital in Houston. Bertner, the singular candidate, was in the right place at the right time, with the right training and connections, to serve as acting director of the Texas State Cancer Hospital and the Division of Cancer Research. Within a month, he successfully urged the UT Regents to change the name to the M.D. Anderson Hospital for Cancer Research of The University of Texas. It obviously would not be the last name change.
Bertner’s many professional commitments and medical practice kept him busy, not to mention his continuing advisory role for the M.D. Anderson Foundation trustees. Never interested in the permanent directorship of the new cancer hospital, he generously donated his UT salary to the hospital’s operating fund.
Those who knew Bertner well included Dr. Bill Seybold, who summarized Bertner’s career and contributions in a 1971 presidential address before the Texas Surgical Society. Seybold had been one of Bertner’s surgeons along with Lee Clark and Alton Ochsner prior to Bertner’s death to cancer in 1950.
“To be the [acting] director of the cancer hospital would enable him to rescue it from chaos, start its program and help select a permanent head,” Seybold said. “The progress of this hospital was critical to the building of a great medical center.”
Bertner’s vision of the Texas Medical Center depended on the new state cancer hospital being successful, added Seybold. He was determined to invest his time and energy in the fledging cancer hospital as its success would lead to the success of the larger medical city he envisioned.
In 1945, Bertner announced he was going to leave the position as acting director to devote his time to his new appointment as executive director of the Texas Medical Center, stating to the UT System Board of Regents, “the institute could not make long-range plans until such [permanent] leadership is selected.”
It is important to note that Jesse Jones remained a close friend to Bertner. During the 1930s and early 1940s, Jones was in Washington, D.C., working with presidents Woodrow Wilson and Franklin D. Roosevelt as head of the Reconstruction Finance Corporation. Jones played a key role in combating the nation’s economic problems during and after the Great Depression and overseeing the financing of industrial expansion before and during World War II. He held the purse strings for nearly $50 billion and was U.S. Secretary of Commerce under President Roosevelt between 1940 and 1945.
Jones returned to Houston in 1945 as Bertner was asking the UT System Board of Regents to find a permanent director for the cancer hospital. Jones was eager to learn about Bertner’s work at the Oaks and plans to convert the forest behind Hermann Hospital into a medical center and home for the cancer hospital and Baylor’s medical school.
In 1937, Jones and his wife, Mary Gibbs, had started their Houston Endowment. Back in Houston after the war, Jones asked Bertner how he could help with building a medical city. Given Baylor had brought to Houston a large collection of medical books housed downtown in the Medical Arts Building, Bertner suggested a library building was needed. In 1952, Jones presented a check for $600,000 to the Harris County Medical Society’s nonprofit arm, the Houston Academy of Medicine, to build a library building. In this way the Jesse H. Jones Library Building came to be.
What Ernst Bertner accomplished those four years (1942-1946) as acting director of the fledgling M.D. Anderson Hospital is impressive by any standard. He took the helm of a new cancer hospital with no faculty and no clinical facilities and went to work at the Oaks. Bertner saw an opportunity to build a cancer hospital that would help him convert his vision of the future Texas Medical Center into a reality. With that in mind, he assessed the challenge and focused on making the cancer hospital a success story that in turn would set the stage for the success of the larger medical center he had in mind. First things first. He went to work at the Oaks.
Next article: Bertner and the Oaks