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Pediatrician Saved Lives with “Political Medicine”

Abraham B. Bergman ’54

Flame-resistant sleepwear, poison-control packaging, and bicycle helmets are all safety measures that have saved countless children’s lives, thanks in part to Abraham “Abe” Bergman. The influential pediatrician and public health advocate dedicated his life to protecting children through medicine and policy reform.

Abe was born in Seattle and brought up with a strong sense of service, rooted in his family’s Jewish faith. “Worthwhile” was his family’s guiding principle—to do things that are worthwhile, like helping others. In 1950 he graduated from Garfield High School, then followed in the footsteps of his older brother, Elihu Bergman ’50, and attended Reed. Abe studied biology and wrote his thesis on metal radioisotopes in mouse melanoma with Prof. Alan M. MacEwan [biology 1951–55] advising. Abe would later tell people he went to Reed because he loved basketball, and it was the only place where he was good enough to play; for two years he was coach of the junior varsity team. His senior year, Abe performed in the chorus of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance, an experience that made such an impact that Abe organized a multigenerational production as part of the 50th reunion for the class of ’54.

After graduating from Reed, Abe earned his medical degree from Western Reserve University (now Case Western Reserve University). He was a pediatric resident at Boston Children’s Hospital and then at St. Mary’s Hospital in London. Upon completing his medical training, Abe returned to his hometown of Seattle, where he joined the faculty of the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Washington School of Medicine and practiced at Seattle Children’s (then known as Children’s Orthopedic Hospital). He was director of outpatient services for 19 years, then moved to Harborview Medical Center, where he was chief of pediatrics from 1983 to 2005. He served on the faculty of the University of Washington School of Medicine until 2016, when he was named professor emeritus of pediatrics upon retirement.

Abe began studying sudden infant death syndrome when it was still known as crib death. Despite being the number one cause of death in children under one, it was largely misunderstood and the cause unknown. Parents often carried a great deal of guilt and shame, compounded by the involvement of law enforcement in many cases. In the 1960s and early ’70s, Abe was president of the National Foundation for Sudden Infant Death, a grassroots group that supported parents who had lost children to SIDS. They sought to destigmatize SIDS and raise money for research, which led to the Sudden Infant Death Syndrome Act of 1974. While the cause of SIDS is still a mystery, deaths have decreased dramatically.

In 1985, Abe partnered with trauma surgeon Dr. Cliff Herman to create the Harborview Injury Prevention and Research Center. He was also involved in the campaign to promote bicycle helmet use.

Abe’s family said that among his long list of accomplishments, he was most proud of building and running a park in the Central District, known as the Seattle PlayGarden, which has allowed thousands of children with all types of abilities a safe place to play over the years.

Abe called his combination of clinical practice and policy work “political medicine”; over the years he was very successful in lobbying for children’s health and safety on Capitol Hill. He served as a passionate witness for many issues, sharing the stories of patients and families who had suffered from preventable incidents. In 1967, Abe brought Washington state Senator Warren G. Magnuson to the burn unit of Seattle Children’s Hospital, showing him children who were badly burned when their clothing caught on fire. Abe later showed the charred nightgown of a two-year-old to a Senate subcommittee, sharing how it had ignited next to a space heater, burning over 85% of her body.

“You senators are in a position to save far more lives than physicians,” he told them.

In response, Congress toughened and broadened the Flammable Fabrics Act to require more flame-resistant clothing.

“I’ve always believed I could affect more lives in the halls of the legislature and city council than I could in a doctor’s office,” he’s quoted as saying in a 1989 article from the University of Washington’s Health Sciences News.

Abe drafted and successfully lobbied for the Poison Packaging Act, which dramatically reduced childhood deaths from poisoning. He also initiated the bill creating the Consumer Product Safety Commission and was instrumental in the work to fluoridate water in King County.

In 1970, Abe proposed the idea for a National Health Service Corps, a federal program to support doctors, dentists, and nurses who spent time working in low-income communities. Abe enlisted medical students to lobby key members of Congress in their home districts, and he personally went to West Virginia to put pressure on Representative Harley Orrin Staggers, whose district was one of the neediest in the country. President Nixon signed to establish the National Health Service Corps later that year.

Abe is survived by his eight children: Anna, Ben, and Matthew Bergman; Sarah Bergman Lewis; Becca Bull; and Pavel, Eugeny and Yulia Fiala. His youngest three children were adopted at different times from orphanages in Russia. Dr. Bergman is also survived by six grandchildren.

Appeared in Reed magazine: Spring 2024

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