Bernard G. Sarnat, MD, DDS
At the age of 99, Dr. Bernard G. Sarnat, known for his dedication to the understanding of Craniofacial Biology through scientific research, died of respiratory failure on October 21st, 2011. Dr. Sarnat was both a renowned Clinical Professor in the Division of Plastic Surgery at UCLA Geffen School of Medicine and a respected adjunct Professor of Oral Biology in the UCLA School of Dentistry. Despite his failing health, he stayed active with a sharp mind until the end, making contributions as a senior research scientist at both UCLA and Cedar Sinai Medical Center. Clinically, he operated a private practice as a Plastic Surgeon in Beverly Hills, California until 1991.
Joseph G. McCarthy, MD, the Lawrence D. Bell Professor and Chief of the Institute of Reconstructive Plastic Surgery at New York University, nominated Dr. Sarnat the ‘John Hunter of 20th century plastic surgery.’ Dr. McCarthy went on to say, “Like the celebrated 18th century English surgeon, considered the father of surgical research, Sarnat had an unquenchable curiosity based on observations made during his daily clinical activities. Ever logical, he then went to the animal laboratory to seek the answers.” Joseph E. Murray, MD, Nobel Laureate in Physiology or Medicine 1990, mentioned that “During his career, Dr. Sarnat had been recognized as a caring, skillful and compassionate plastic surgeon. It has been a privilege for me to share my surgical life with Bernie for over half a century.” He was described by Harvey Zarem, MD, former Chief of the UCLA Division of Plastic Surgery, as the “Dean of Plastic Surgery.”
Dr. Sarnat was born in Chicago on September 1, 1912 to Jewish parents who immigrated from Belarus, Russia. He was an honor student in grade school and high school and earned a bachelor’s degree and medical degree from the University of Chicago. His undergraduate and graduates studies took place during the Great Depression in the 1930s and it was necessary for him to work in his father’s drugstore at that time to make ends meet. Sarnat did his internship in Los Angeles but then returned to the University of Illinois to receive his dental degree in 1940. During these formative years, Dr. Issac Schour, Professor and head of Histology, taught Dr. Sarnat the discipline of research. After obtaining his dental degree, he began his Plastic Surgery residency at Cook County and the University Hospital. He felt fortunate to be able to spend the next three full years with Drs. Vilray P. Blair, James B. Brown and Louis T. Byars at Washington University Department of Surgery in St. Louis. Dr. Sarnat claimed that this was the best training available at that time, “It was surgery, surgery, surgery; there was no didactic plan or significant literature available at that time. It was pure surgery.” As both a researcher and clinician, Dr Sarnat would later go on to make important contributions to Plastic Surgery education. Sarnat’s first clinical appointment was at the Washington School of Medicine and Barnes Hospital where he trained. Through hard work and an unparalleled dedication to both medicine and research, he became Professor and Chief of the Department Oral and Plastic Surgery at St. Louis University. He would eventually return to Chicago and become the Head of the Department of Oral and Plastic Surgery for both the Medical and Dental Schools at the University of Chicago. Over the next 10 years his research would gain national recognition. But as administrative responsibilities grew, he had less time for research. In 1955, he moved his family to Los Angeles where he established a private practice, allowing him to concentrate on his true passion: research.
Sarnat’s research on Craniofacial biology earned him worldwide recognition. To understand Craniofacial growth and development, he developed animal models: turtles, rats, pigs, dogs, lagomorphs, and primates. He used both immature and mature animals to investigate how functional parts determine skeletal growth. Sarnat used local surgical manipulation in his experimental designs. Using hundreds of such experiments, he reported on the role of: 1) the condyle and neuromuscular function on mandibular growth; 2) the septum on nasal growth, 3) the nasal bones, sinuses and facial sutures on midface growth; 4) globe enlargement on orbital expansion; and 5) cranial base and cranial sutures on cranial vault development. In addition, he was the first to use alizarin red stain to monitor dental structures. Dr. Sarnat’s innovative methods and unique approach to experimental design has provided the framework for our understanding of wound healing, bone growth, dental and craniofacial development.
Dr. Sarnat, along with Dr. Murray, was one of the founding members of the Plastic Surgery Research Council (PSRC) organized by Milton Edgerton and Robin Anderson in 1955. The annual meeting for the PSRC, to this day, remains the preeminent venue for presenting State-of-the-Art research in Plastic Surgery. Shortly after it’s inception, Dr. Sarnat had the honor of hosting the PSRC meeting. Over 50 years later, the annual PSRC meeting will finally return to UCLA in 2013. Dr. Sarnat remained passionate about the PSRC and the need for Plastic Surgeons to continue their basic science research efforts. Dr. Henry Kawamoto recounts a UCLA visit from Paul Tessier, the father of Craniofacial Surgery. Tessier insisted, “The one person I have to meet when I am here is Sarnat. I need to talk with him about his research findings.”
Dr. Sarnat was one of the initial investors in his good friend’s company, Bershire Hathaway, Inc. This friend, Warren Buffet, recognized Bernie’s rise to the top of his profession, “Bernie not only helped thousands of patients to regain a positive self-image and to function better in society, but he has also taught countless students how to be better doctors, thereby multiplying the benefits to society that flow from his talents.” Dividends earned from his early investments in Mr. Buffet’s company were used by Dr. Sarnat to generously fund the Bernard G. Sarnat Endowed Chair in Craniofacial Research at the David Geffen School of Medicine (a position that I currently have the honor of holding). A similarly endowed Chair at the University of Chicago is currently held by Russell Reid, MD.
Dr. Sarnat survived multiple brushes with death with colon cancer in the 1970s and pulmonary embolism in the 1990s. Throughout it all, he always remained in good spirits and had his full intellect. During one of Dr. Sarnat’s recent hospitalizations, one of his great-granddaughters visited him. She was struggling with the idea of death and the meaning of life. She asked Dr. Sarnat, “Grandpa, what happens next, after all of this?” He looked puzzled at first but then replied thoughtfully, “Well, they will just publish my next paper.” Dr Sarnat published over 220 peer reviewed papers and currently has 3 ‘in press.’ As we await the publication of his next paper, we celebrate his life and his legacy. His contributions to the art and science of plastic surgery will live on for generations to come.
Dr. Sarnat is survived by his wife of 70 years, Rhoda Sarnat; his 2 children, Gerry and Joan Sarnat; his grandchildren, Zoe, Eli, Emma, Jascha and Michael; and great-grandchildren Elliot and Simon.
James P. Bradley, MD