Tufts University School of Medicine Dean Emeritus Harris Berman Dies

After 17 years as CEO of Tufts Health Plan, Harris Berman joined the Tufts University School of Medicine administration, ultimately serving as the school’s dean for a decade
A portrait of Harris Berman, dean emeritus of the Tufts University School of Medicine
Photo: Louis F. Bachrach for Tufts University
October 31, 2021

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Harris Berman, who served as dean of the School of Medicine from 2011 to 2019 (after having served as interim dean beginning in 2009), died on October 30. What follows below is a tribute from members of the Berman family.

Dr. Harris Alan Berman, dean emeritus of the Tufts University School of Medicine, has died after an extraordinary life of mastery, generosity, and principle. He is survived by his wife of 57 years, Ruth E. Nemzoff, four children, 11 grandchildren, and a sister, Phyllis E. Berman. He was 83.

For nearly half a century, he held influential positions in the American medical community, but to those who knew him, his achievements were exceeded by a seemingly inexhaustible spirit of care-giving, integrity, and stewardship. Harris kept people and institutions safe. He was a leader and a mentor without ego, from his teens to his eighties, who saw himself as an introvert. He had a rare combination of soaring vision and day-to-day practicality; he could invent a healthcare system, lead a medical school, play Mozart from memory, and, somehow, still send a text alerting a loved one to leave early for the airport because of construction.

He was born in Concord, New Hampshire, to Frederick Berman and Marion “Mitzi” Rubin Berman. His father ran a wholesale plumbing and heating supply company; his mother was a pianist who had graduated from the New England Conservatory at age nineteen, and taught generations of students alongside her career as a musician.

From the beginning, his low-key competence thrust him into positions of responsibility; when it was discovered that he was president of seven organizations at his high school, the local newspaper declared him “Busy Bee Berman.” He graduated from Harvard College in 1960 and from Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons in 1964. That year, he and Ruth were married, drawn together partly by a shared enthusiasm for the prospect of serving in the U.S. Peace Corps. “I was enamored of the idea of the Peace Corps from the moment that Jack Kennedy mentioned it,” he said later.

From 1965 to 1967, Harris and Ruth had a thrilling assignment to India, where he became the Peace Corps’ chief medical officer, responsible for the care of some 1,500 volunteers across the region—a formidable duty for a young doctor who had yet to complete his residency training. The experience altered the course of his life, sharpening his interest in infectious diseases, which later became a speciality, and persuading him of the vital importance of public health and prevention as a way to protect populations, rather than building systems that focus most on treatment of disease among those who can afford it.

In 1971, he and Jim Squires, a friend and fellow physician, teamed up to co-found the Matthew Thornton Health Plan, in Nashua, New Hampshire, one of the first staff-model health maintenance organizations in the country. He served as medical director and later executive director. The organization, a pioneer in the development of managed care, was inspired partly by his experience in India. “How do you take the budget you have and do the most that you can for people in your care? How do you keep them healthy and prevent illness?” he recalled in a 2011 interview with Tufts Now. By the mid-1980s, the organization provided care to 50,000 people, even as he continued to practice internal medicine and treat infectious diseases. 

In 1986, he left Matthew Thornton to become CEO of Tufts Health Plan. Over the next seventeen years of his tenure, the health plan grew into a $2-billion enterprise, as its membership expanded from 60,000 people to 1 million. In 2003, he retired as CEO and agreed to serve as chairman of the Department of Public Health and Community Medicine at the Tufts University School of Medicine (TUSM), and, later, as dean of Public Health and Professional Degree Programs.

In 2009, he was asked to become interim dean. In October 2011, the “interim” was deleted; at seventy-three, he was the oldest dean of a medical school in America. (In the years after, he liked to joke that he did not get younger after that.) He served as dean for nearly another decade, during which time he led curriculum improvements and opened the new Jaharis Anatomy Lab and other spaces. He also secured gifts totaling $37 million—including the largest one-year sum in the school’s history—ensuring that TUSM could continue to provide a world-class medical education. One of his proudest projects at the school was developing the Maine Track Program, a pioneering training regime for rural doctors in Maine, where communities struggle to attract and retain physicians. In collaboration with Maine Medical Center, the program would feed a pipeline of new physicians to settle in rural parts of the country.

In 2019, shortly before his second retirement, Berman strongly encouraged and fully supported the university's decision to remove the Sackler name from five Tufts medical facilities and programs over the family’s role in the opioid epidemic. The decision made Tufts the first known university to publicly remove the family’s name from its walls. In an interview with the New York Times, Harris said, “I think the significance is symbolic, but it’s an important symbolic move.”

Atul Gawande, the surgeon and author, consulted Harris for articles in The New Yorker because he knew to expect a candid appraisal. “He was one of the first people who ran an insurance company who could tell me what was wrong with the insurance system,” Gawande said in 2019, when he was speaking with Tufts Now about Harris’s retirement from TUSM. “When I was grappling with what is wrong with the way we train people to be physicians, he would be the first to acknowledge this isn’t the way it should be,” Gawande said. In 2019, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker, who had been the chief executive of Harvard Pilgrim Healthcare when Harris led the Tufts Health Plan, called him a “friendly rival,” but also a mentor. “Harris was an innovator and a leader in every way,” Baker said in Tufts Now. “His leadership in every role he has ever had has been outstanding, and his commitment to improving health care for everyone has been long lasting and steadfast.” 

In a note to Harvard classmates, on the occasion of their 55th college reunion, Harris wrote, “I’ve enjoyed my varied careers—Peace Corps physician, infectious disease consultant, a primary care doc, founder and CEO of not-for-profit health plans, and now dean of a medical school. Variety is the spice of life!”

Throughout his life, he maintained a passion for music, especially the piano, and he served on multiple boards, including the Apple Hill Chamber Players, and Celebrity Series, a Boston-based arts organization, where he spent six years as board chair, helping to bring dance companies and world-class musicians to perform in his city.

He had abundant experience with resilience; he suffered a coronary when he was 48, followed by a cardiac bypass. At the age of 66, he underwent a successful partial nephrectomy for renal cell carcinoma, and eventually, the installation of a pacemaker. On a winter night in 2010, he and Ruth were out to dinner when an electrical fire destroyed their family home in Newton. They were without a place to live, but never without support from a long list of devoted friends. He discovered, as he put it later, that “one can live with far fewer possessions and still be happy.” He and Ruth established a new home in a single-floor condo in Brookline. “It was not exactly a painless way to downsize,” he wrote, “but surely an efficient one!”

He gloried, above all, in a large, devoted family. For much of the past decade, he was often in the role of the proud spouse, joining Ruth in her capacity as an author, a new career that led her to hundreds of speaking occasions in six countries. In the summers, at his beloved retreat on Lake Winnisquam, not far from where he had water-skied as a boy, he presided over an expanding brood of grandchildren, who range in age from 3 to 21. He celebrated their achievements, but always conveyed his belief that the most important priorities were to care for one another, and, in his words, do “meaningful things” with their lives. 

Across the decades, through his many positions and relationships, he embodied the commitment to leave the world better than he found it. During his final days, even as his body failed him, he never flagged in his determination to help others thrive. In his hospital room at Tufts Medical Center, a young doctor-in-training approached his bed to conduct an exam and sheepishly promised to make it quick. Harris replied, “I’m a medical educator. Take all the time you need.”

Survivors include his wife Ruth Nemzoff; his children and their spouses: Kim Berman and Farzad Mostashari, Seth Berman and Mandy Lee Berman, Rebecca Berman and Franklin Huang, Sarabeth Berman and Evan Osnos; sister Phyllis Berman; nephews Michael Wade and Jeffrey Wade; and his grandchildren: Samson, Ana-Sophia, Aidan, Ellie, Zoe, Zach, Asa, Esme, Cy, Ollie, and Rosie.

In lieu of flowers, the family asks for donations to the Harris A. Berman, MD and Ruth E. Nemzoff Endowed Fund at Tufts University School of Medicine, 136 Harrison Ave., Boston, MA, 02111. Gifts can also be made online at go.tufts.edu/HarrisBerman