Barnet Berris

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Medicine: My Story

Berris, Barnet

Last Updated: Aug-25-2015
Annotated by:
Duffin, Jacalyn

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Autobiography


Born in 1921 to Jewish immigrant parents, “Barney” Barnett describes his life in medicine and education, from his earliest love of science and learning through his medical and residency education in general internal medicine, his success as an academic physician, and finally his judicious decision to retire.

An important leitmotiv is the antisemitism of the University of Toronto that kept him from a residency position (he went to Minneapolis) and a staff position (he was offered a one-year fellowship on a low salary in 1951).  Even after he was accepted as a staff member at the Toronto General Hospital (TGH), he was not promoted. Although he referred many patients to his TGH colleagues, only six ever returned the favor in the thirteen years he was there. Ironically, his Jewish background plucked him from this pedestrian position directly to the seat of Physician in Chief of Toronto’s Mount Sinai hospital (founded 1922) when finally it became a teaching hospital in 1964. 

While maintaining a practice in internal medicine, Berris became a liver specialist and researcher who introduced liver biopsy to Toronto. Known as a consummate diagnostician, he endeavored to enhance the research profile of his institution, integrating it with bedside instruction. He served on examining committees for the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons, candidly describing the subjectivity of the process. He also served on many committees of the College of Physicians of Ontario, including discipline
, and describes the process used to investigate complaints with case examples.

His story includes vivid descriptions of some of the most famous figures in Canadian medical history, his teachers and colleagues – J.B. Grant, Arthur W. Ham, William Boyd, Ray Farquharson, K.J.R.Wightman, Arthur Squires, and Arnold Aberman. He was once involved with the care of the wife of David Ben-Gurion and Queen Elizabeth II.

Little is told of his personal life, although he admits that he often neglected his family for the press of work. His first wife, Marie, was a social worker; they had three children, one now a physician. She died of ovarian cancer; to care for her, he stepped down as chief in 1977.  In 1984, he married Thelma Rosen, an expert in education and widow of a pediatrician colleague. Together they went on a year’s sabbatical that allowed him to work in Singapore, Stanford University, and Sheila Sherlock’s lab at the Royal Free Hospital in London.

Some of the most engaging chapters contain clinical vignettes: stories about patients, the diagnostic workup, and their outcomes.  Like Richard Goldbloom (A Lucky Life
) and without diminishing his native abilities (which must have been considerable), he modestly attributes most of his success to luck.  

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