May 15, 1997
University Gazette


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  Faculty of Medicine Memorial Minute: Robert Higgins Ebert

memorial minute on the life of



Robert Ebert served with distinction as Dean of Harvard's Faculty of Medicine for twelve years, from 1965 to 1977. These were tumultuous times in which many, including medical students, were questioning previous approaches to education in an atmosphere in which authority generally was under great suspicion. Meanwhile the University, and the nation as a whole, were plagued by uncertainty and division during the closing years of the Vietnam war. Dr. Ebert's seasoned approach, calm demeanor, and warm personality served Harvard well during these demanding years.

Dr. Ebert was born on September 10, 1914 in Minneapolis. His early education took place at the Laboratory School of the University of Chicago and at its High School. From there, he went on to attend the University of Chicago as an undergraduate, receiving his Bachelor of Science in 1936. Upon completion of his first year of medical school at the University of Chicago, Bob was selected as a Rhodes Scholar. At Oxford, he was especially fortunate to come under the influence of Sir Howard Florey at the Dunn School of Pathology. He returned to the University of Chicago, where he completed his medical studies in 1942. Coming to Boston in the same year, he served an internship in medicine on the 2nd and 4th Medical Services at the Boston City Hospital. For two years thereafter, as the war with Japan was nearing its end, he spent a term of duty as a Navy doctor with assignment to the Second Marine Division as a combat surgeon in the Pacific theatre.

He again served for a period at the University of Chicago becoming fully seasoned to the life of teaching and research in the academic environment before being called in 1956 to Western Reserve University in Cleveland where he became Hanna Payne Professor of Medicine and Director of Medicine at the University Hospitals. Here he continued his laboratory and clinical work related to tuberculosis, which included active membership, and soon the presidency, of the National Tuberculosis Association. His interests and responsibilities broadened, and he began to write thoughtfully about current problems in medical education including consideration of the relative roles of full-time and part-time faculty and the responsibilities of teaching hospitals to the communities around them.

In 1964 he succeeded Walter Bauer as Jackson Professor of Clinical Medicine and Chief of the Medical Services at the Massachusetts General Hospital. Here he became responsible for a large and expanding enterprise in a period of rapid growth of academic medicine. It was also a time when there were important changes in attitudes to the provision of medical care as the Federal government's Medicare program was just being established. Ebert had scarcely settled into this new range of activities when he was invited in 1965 by President Pusey to succeed Dr. George Berry as Dean of the Harvard Medical School.

Here, too, change was the order of the day. Berry had led the Medical School rather independently from other arms of the University. He had been a successful fund raiser, a builder of buildings, and a highly devoted and attentive administrator. The closeness of his attention to the School's workings, and perhaps a measure of the comparatively smaller size of the Faculty at the time, can be appreciated by the fact that Dr. Berry personally served on each of its professorial ad hoc committees.

With the emergence of group practice plans in the hospitals and the growing importance of financial sponsorship of medical care by insurance vehicles, the involvement of many faculty members with their institutions became closer. Ebert's administration responded to this trend and strengthened it by developing a new faculty appointment category, Clinical Full-Time. It was a significant departure. Professorships in the new category were granted for achievements of a more clinical character than those in the older, fiscally tenured classification. This broadened scope represented an extended responsibility for the School and implied an expanded view of the School's function in the clinical arena.

Given special impetus by the death of the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1968, the Faculty focused heightened attention to its own imperfections in regard to diversity and to the same shortcoming in the student body. A vigorous response to this followed, in which the voice of David Potter, Professor of Neurobiology, was prominent, especially in regard to encouraging enrollment of minority medical students. Ebert also recognized the emerging significance and potential of international matters to the Medical School, and accordingly established the office of Associate Dean for International Programs. In this role Dieter Koch-Weser arranged faculty and student exchanges to permit relationships with a wide variety of places around the globe.

As the Faculty increased in size, its collective sense became more difficult to determine by means of meetings open to all its members. An alternative mechanism was needed for evoking collective faculty opinion, and it was to meet this need that a broadly representative Faculty Council was created in 1975. Reexamination of the curriculum of study for medical students became another significant undertaking. Alexander Leaf and Howard Hiatt, both Professors of Medicine, led the way in a thorough review by the Curriculum Committee to evaluate and improve the course of study then in effect. The objective was to introduce more emphasis on problem solving and less on rote learning. A number of significant modifications were consequently made in the curriculum, always an area resistant to change.

In 1969 he was instrumental in forming a distinguished group that founded the Harvard Community Health Plan, the first university-sponsored plan to provide comprehensive health care to a subscriber population. From the beginning, this development, perhaps the achievement for which Ebert will be associated as much as any other, was conceived in broad terms.

All of the co-founding physicians in the new venture were members of the Harvard faculty. From a beginning involving two physicians and eighty-eight subscribers, the plan has grown to include some sixteen thousand physicians and over a million members. It is now known as Harvard Pilgrim Health Care. Dr. Ebert served as Chairman of the HCHP Board from its inception and upon retirement from the chairmanship continued to serve first as a member, then as honorary director for the remainder of his life. In 1980 he founded the Harvard Community Health Plan Foundation to encourage related programs of research, teaching, and community service. He acted as Chairman of the Foundation's Board from 1980 until 1996.

Yet another important departure under his direction was the establishment of the Harvard-M.I.T. program in Health Sciences Technology in 1970. The early instigators of this program included David Rutstein at Harvard and Murray Eden of M.I.T. The project was also aided importantly in its early stages by the redoubtable Henry Meadow, Associate Dean for Administration of the Medical School, and by Professor Walter Rosenblith of M.I.T., as well as Jerome Wiesner, M.I.T.'s President. Through it the great resources of the physical, engineering and biological sciences and the innovative environment at M.I.T. were to be brought into the medical arena at a particularly telling point, the education of undergraduate medical students. To accomplish this end, a new Division, joining the two universities, was created under the leadership of Irving London. This Division made possible some new explorations of approaches to medical education and medical research not only as related to the natural sciences but also to the social and behavioral sciences.

On the completion of his years as Dean in 1977 he became President of the Milbank Memorial Fund until 1984. This responsibility required him to live in New York City, but later, when he became a senior consultant to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation he moved on to Princeton for four years from 1984 to 1988 after which he was called back to take charge of the Milbank Fund for an additional period. During this time he also became a valued advisor to several foundations, especially The Commonwealth Fund.

Over the years his accumulated list of accomplishments, memberships, and responsibilities is long. He was a trustee of the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, of Barnard College, Mt. Sinai Medical Center, of the Beth Israel Hospital, of the Mind Body Medical Institute, the Educational Development Center, the President's Biomedical Research Panel, the National Library of Medicine, Meharry Medical College, and The Rockefeller Foundation, among others. He was also a member of the Board of Directors of the Squibb Corporation, and of quite a number of professional societies, including the Association of American Physicians, of which he was elected both President and a Master, the Institute of Medicine, and others as well.

Bob Ebert's personal qualities were particularly noteworthy. Many remember his twinkling eyes and his characteristic bow tie. His baritone voice was commanding and could conveniently fill a room. His concern for the human problems of those around him was palpable and deeply ingrained. There were many times when this aspect of him, perhaps the perspective of a caring physician, governed his actions. One such event occurred during the anxious days when some of Harvard's undergraduate students had occupied a major building in the Yard. The story was that, against the advice of many present, he left a meeting of deans in Cambridge to go over to the scene of trouble out of real concern for the physical welfare of the students. He was heard to declare something to the effect that, "After all, I'm a doctor, you know."

Robert Ebert leaves behind him in the memories of his many friends and associates vivid recollections of a courteous, thoughtful, gracious, and considerate man.

He was supported and strengthened in these things by his wife, Emily. Their long life together stretched from their first meeting at Oxford and lasted through much of his professional career until her death in 1986. Their three children, Elizabeth, John, and Thomas have each made significant contributions on their own. After Emily's death, and his first retirement from his post at the Milbank Fund, Bob stayed on in Princeton. In 1989 he married Barbara Bacheller Ford, an old friend and associate from his Harvard days. Barbara had worked in the office of Dean George Berry and later, in a responsible position in Dean Ebert's and Dean Tosteson's offices. Subsequently, she held a significant post in the office of the Secretary to the University. In 1990, several months after their marriage, Bob and Barbara moved back to Massachusetts, where they took up residence in Wayland. Their relationship for the final six years of his life was a particularly propitious and supportive one.

Bob's final illness was prolonged and required him to meet the challenges of a slowly advancing, and ultimately incurable, cancer. This he did with great courage, maturity, and even with cheerfulness. His vision projected into the future up to the end of his life, a future that perplexes all of us so much just now. In a meeting of the Physicans' Group of the Health Centers Division of Harvard Pilgrim Health Care, not long before his death on January 29, 1996, he told an attentive audience, "Do not forsake your values, for they will sustain you .....".

He will be remembered as a wise and warm leader whose values will long be with us. His were lasting contributions to the medicine of his generation and to the lives of so many around him.

Respectfully submitted,

Joseph L. Dorsey, M.D.

Thomas S. Inui, M.D.

Dieter Koch-Weser, M.D.

Alexander Leaf, M.D.

Irving London, M.D.

Henry C. Meadow

Susan P. Pauker, M.D.

Robert Shenton

Paul S. Russell, Chairperson


Copyright 1998 President and Fellows of Harvard College