He was 38 on that August day 55 years ago and already an accomplished cardiovascular surgeon at Children’s Hospital, where his innovative techniques — including performing heart operations inside a pressurized, hyperbaric chamber — were expanding the abilities of physicians to save the lives of desperately ill babies.
Decades later, Dr. William F. Bernhard would recall that on Aug. 8, 1963, a colleague “mentioned he had a baby in severe respiratory distress that was a member of an important family.” Along with four others, Dr. Bernhard made medical history as they took the infant boy into the hospital’s hyperbaric chamber to try to treat him not for a cardiac ailment, but for hyaline membrane disease — now known as respiratory distress syndrome.
The moment was also historic because the baby was Patrick Bouvier Kennedy, the last child of President John F. Kennedy and Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy. Born 5½ weeks premature, Patrick initially appeared to improve inside the pressurized chamber, which increased blood oxygen and circulation in patients. But his condition soon worsened.
“We are losing,” Dr. Bernhard said through an intercom to the president, who was standing outside the chamber, watching them through a window.
Though baby Patrick died just 39 hours after his birth, Dr. Bernhard’s efforts that day — along with the media attention generated by the death of the president’s son — would focus increased medical attention and research on an infant respiratory ailment that is now much more treatable.
Dr. Bernhard, whose development of cardiac devices and surgical techniques contributed to saving countless lives, died of pneumonia Monday. He was 93 and had lived in Framingham for decades.
A physician, scientist, and researcher, Dr. Bernhard was also a devoted Catholic who often attended Mass daily. “I think he was a firm believer that God put us on this planet for a reason. And it was up to us to find out what it was, and to do it,” said his daughter Cathy of Concord, N.H.
Her father, she added, “was very sure of who he was and why he was here.”
Some of his research focused on the development of the left ventricular assist device, which can be implanted in the chests of patients to help weakened hearts pump blood.
Among many other innovations he helped pioneer early in his career was a light that, attached to a probe, illuminated the inside of a heart during surgery. In the early 1960s, Dr. Bernhard and his colleagues also adapted for surgical use an adhesive that allowed surgeons to paste up, rather than stitch, incisions in the heart and blood vessels during operations.
On the day he was called on to help save Patrick Kennedy, Dr. Bernhard was in his laboratory “minding my own business,” he recalled in a 2013 interview for Michael S. Ryan’s book “Patrick Bouvier Kennedy: A Brief Life That Changed the History of Newborn Care.”
Once Dr. Bernhard became part of the medical team caring for Patrick, he brought the baby into the hyperbaric chamber, joined by a respiratory specialist, an anesthesiologist, a nurse, and a medical technician.
The presence of President Kennedy standing close by, “did not change our actions,” Dr. Bernhard told Ryan. “We would not have done anything differently.” Inside the chamber, Dr. Bernhard added, “everything was quiet and businesslike.”
Treating Patrick inside the hyperbaric chamber was groundbreaking. “We had never placed an infant inside the chamber for any pulmonary problems,” Dr. Bernhard said. “This was a first.”
But as the medical team tried to save Patrick, “I knew the situation was desperate,” Dr. Bernhard said, and he was frank with the president: “I told him the baby was probably going to die.”
In the decades that followed that day, Dr. Bernhard recalled that he “never talked to anyone … especially the media.” In the interview with Ryan he added: “This is my first mention of it.”
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., William Francis Bernhard grew up in Great Neck, on Long Island, N.Y. He was the only child of William Bernhard and the former Helen Conroy, whose immigrant families were from Austria, Germany, and Ireland.
Dr. Bernhard went to Manlius Military Academy, a prep school, outside Syracuse, N.Y., and he graduated in three years with a bachelor’s degree from Williams College. After serving in the Pacific in the Navy at the end of World War II, he received his medical degree from what is now Upstate Medical University in Syracuse.
While serving his residency at what is now Upstate University Hospital , Dr. Bernhard met June Horne, a nurse. They married 70 years ago, in 1948.
They then moved to Boston, where Dr. Robert Gross, a pioneering pediatric heart surgeon, became Dr. Bernhard’s mentor. In addition to becoming a senior associate in cardiovascular surgery at Children’s Hospital, Dr. Bernhard retired as a professor emeritus at Harvard Medical School.
“He was very bright and he would always, even with 10 children, inquire about how each of us was doing,” said his daughter Chris Viegas of West Bloomfield, Mich. “Every relationship he had with each kid was individual.”
Away from his surgery and research, Dr. Bernhard “loved sailing,” his daughter Cathy said.
“He’d spend every weekend, every vacation he could on the water,” she added. “He loved the challenge of it. He said he found it really relaxing — it was totally absorbing. He loved the sounds, the smells of the water.”
Dr. Bernhard also was known for his dry sense of humor, which didn’t desert him even as his health failed.
“When he could barely be understood and heard, because his voice was weak, he could still make a sardonic comment when you asked a question that had some vagary to it,” said his son James of Plainfield. “And he was so grateful, and so happy, to have been able to spend his last year in his own house, surrounded by his family, his wife, and all his familiar things.”
In addition to his wife, June, his daughters Chris and Cathy, and his son James, Dr. Bernhard leaves two other daughters, Susan of Menlo Park, Calif., and Ann Browning of Gordonsville, Va.; four other sons, Bill of Worcester, John of Framingham, Robert of Florence, and Peter of Lisbon, N.H.; 15 grandchildren, and one great-grandchild.
A funeral Mass will be said at 10:30 a.m. Friday in St. Bridget Catholic Church in Framingham. Burial will be in Edgell Grove Cemetery in Framingham.
Though he spent little time with John F. Kennedy before entering the hyperbaric chamber to treat baby Patrick, Dr. Bernhard noted that the president “was a good parent and a wonderful father, and you could tell that.” Kennedy, he added in his interview with Ryan, “was very cooperative and knowledgeable, and picked up things very fast. He was a quick study.”
In this brief time together that was both tragic and historic, the president and the surgeon even recognized that they “had some things in common,” Dr. Bernhard said. “We were both naval officers in the war and happened to be in some of the same areas at different times. Both of us were dads, too.”Marquard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.