Dr. Bertram Lubin’s 50-year career is not coming to a close. Although the former president, CEO, and research director of Children’s Hospital Oakland—who has served as the principal investigator or co-investigator on over 30 National Institutes of Health grants, published more than 200 articles in peer reviewed journals, and co-authored the first clinical best practice guidelines for sickle cell anemia—is not, as he put it, “looking for an opportunity to advance my academic career,” he is also not interested in retirement.
This fall he joined the Blum Center and the College of Engineering to serve as a senior advisor in health,
where he plans to mentor students and advise interdisciplinary faculty on
health care-related research.
“I’m doing this because I enjoy it, because I see an opportunity to work with students and faculty to
improve the health of children and their families, locally and globally,” said
Lubin. “In my opinion, UC Berkeley is perhaps the best public research
university in the world, has a strong a commitment to its community, and I want
to encourage that with what I do.”
Lubin is in an unusually strong position to make a mentorship and advisement commitment, not just
because of his professional successes, but because he has led a life of
tremendous breadth. Born in New York City, he grew up in a small town outside
of Pittsburgh, PA to parents who ran a fruit and vegetable store and did not
attend high school. He became the first person in his family to graduate from
college and then medical school, and went on to become the first Pediatrician
to run a children’s hospital in California. He plays jazz drums, and once was
asked to play a tune with Thelonious Monk. He is married to a Cal graduate, has
several children of whom he is very proud, started the basic research program
at Oakland Children’s Hospital called CHORI, and founded 40 years ago an
NIH-funded summer research program that has provided basic and clinical
research opportunities to over 1,000, mostly underrepresented, minority high
school, college, and post-baccalaureate students who have used knowledge gained
in the program to pursue STEM-related careers.
Lubin is widely known for advancing the concept of the social determinants
of health and health equity, which can include such varied factors as early child development, food
security, housing, social support, education, housing, and poverty. He concedes
this concept, though now recognized as important, is not financially successful
in the short term, but can improve the health of communities over generations
and result in an enormous return on investment.
Lubin first built his reputation in pediatric hematology, particularly
sickle cell disease. Beginning in the 1970s, he led a California program to
introduce newborn screening for sickle cell disease, an inherited blood
disorder that largely affects people of African descent and can lead to acute
pain and chronic complications. When
he began studying this disease over 50 percent of children with sickle cell
were dying by age 5 from infectious disease complications as their immune
system was compromised.
Lubin, who claims to have inherited a “resilience gene” (if there is one),
was convinced that he could both reduce the suffering the disease causes and extend the life of patients. He
and his colleagues thought that if sickle cell disease could be identified at
birth, they could start antibiotics and prevent early mortality. The problem was
how to convince the community of the value of newborn screening, especially
African Americans, who had cause not to trust the U.S. medical establishment.
“I knew I had to do things
that were widely accepted,” remembered Lubin. “I knew some members of the
community might see the testing as earmarking them in a negative way, so I had
to get them on board, which meant going to every possible community meeting.”
Community permission and
funding came after a pilot project at Alta Bates Hospital in Oakland. The
results were convincing: with a simple blood test, pediatricians knew if an
infant carried the disease. They could then prescribe penicillin to
prevent bacterial infection and affect lifespan.
“Everyone agreed that if the
child had sickle cell, their life would be negatively affected and even at
peril,” explained Lubin. “This then meant that everyone could accept
identifying a child to prolong his or her life and institute prophylactic
antibiotics. What we did in California was adopted across the United States.
Now there isn’t a state that doesn’t screen for sickle cell anemia in the
Lubin went on to start the first sibling cord blood banking program in the
world for children with hemoglobinopathies, which did lead to cures, and
supported the application of gene therapy and bone marrow transplantation for
children with sickle cell and related diseases.
Now 80, he looks back at these experiences with satisfaction and pride. He
attributes much of his success to his passion to help others, particularly
underserved children and their families. He believes the salesman ability
he learned as a kid while working at his parents’ store played a major role in his life.
“[Medical research] funding
often requires sales and communication skills,” he said. “As an NIH reviewer at
a study section on a particular grant, I’d often have to convince the 30 other reviewers
of the value of the proposed research. I do feel these skills are important if
they are done in a way that the community respects and trusts.”
The sales boy turned doctor found these skills particularly useful when he
was running Children’s Hospital Oakland. The staff selected him because they
wanted a physician in the CEO position, who was committed to improving the
health of all children.
“They knew that I brought with me the concept of the social value of
children and the importance of improving the health of the overall community.
It was what I believed in, and what our medical staff believed, was of value.
It’s what a children’s hospital should be doing, especially one that serves 80
percent of children covered of Medi-Cal.”
Lubin plans to spend his time
at UC Berkeley working with bioengineering faculty like Blum Center Chief
Technologist Dan Fletcher on lifesaving medical devices with local and global
application as well as emphasizing the importance of the social determinants of
health—of seeing health care as holistic, interdisciplinary, and cross-sector.
He also plans to help foster the university’s commitment to diversity and
“I think we have to have
health care leadership involved in public policy,” emphasized Lubin. “If you
don’t get policy and implementation together, then you’re not going to move the
needle. We need to stop pursuing small economic advantages. We need to focus on
big impacts for society.”
Dr. Bertram Lubin is available to UC Berkeley students, research staff,
and faculty for office hours and consultations. Please contact Yovana Gomez at firstname.lastname@example.org
for an appointment.