There are some people who, when you think of them, always bring a smile to your face. Dr. Bert Lubin was one of those people. Sadly, we lost Bert to brain cancer two days ago. But the impact he had, not just as an advocate for stem cell research but as a pioneer in sickle cell disease research and a champion for children’s health, will live on.
Bert had a number of official titles but probably the one he was most proud of was President & CEO of Children’s Hospital Oakland (now UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital Oakland). But it wasn’t the title that he cared about, it was the opportunity it gave him to make a difference in the life of children in Oakland, to create a program to find new treatments and cures for a life-threatening disease. And he has made a difference.
As I started to write this tribute to Bert, I thought about who I should ask for a quote. And then I realized I had the perfect person. Bert himself. I was fortunate enough to interview him in December 2018, when he decided to step down after eight years on the CIRM Board. As always, he had his own positive spin on that, saying: “I don’t see myself leaving. I’m just repurposing what is my role in CIRM. I’m recycling and reinventing.”
And Bert was always full of invention.
He grew up in Bellevue, a small town outside Pittsburgh, PA. His parents ran a fruit and vegetable market there and, growing up, Bert often worked in the store. It wasn’t something he enjoyed but he said he learned some valuable lessons.
“I think what happened in my childhood is that I learned how to sell. I am a salesman. I hated working in that store, I hated it, but I liked the communication with people, they trusted me, I could sell things and they were good things. Like Christmas. I’m Jewish, we were the only Jews in that community, and at Christmas we sold Christmas trees, but the trees were sometimes crooked and they were $2.99 a tree so I convinced families that I could go to their house and set the tree so it looked straight and I helped them decorate it and they loved it.”
He said, thinking back on his life it’s almost as if there were a plan, even if he wasn’t aware of it.
“I started thinking about that more recently, I started wondering how did this even happen? I’m not a religious person but it’s almost like there’s some fate. How did I get there? It’s not that I planned it that way and it’s certainly not that my parents planned it because I was the first in my family to go to high school let alone college. My parents, when I went to medical school and then decided I wanted to spend more time in an academic direction, they were upset. They wanted me to go into practice in a community that I grew up in and be economically secure and not be on the fringe in what an academic life is like.”
And then, fate stepped in and brought him to the San Francisco Bay Area.
“What happened was, I was at the University of Pennsylvania having trained at Boston Children’s and Philadelphia Children’s, where I had started a sickle cell disease program, and was asked to look at a job in southern California to start a sickle cell program there. So, I flew to San Francisco because a lot of people I’d studied with were now working at UCSF and I thought it would be fun to see them before going down to southern California. They took me out to dinner and showed me around and I said this place is beautiful, I can play tennis out here all year round, there’s lots of music – I love jazz – and they said ‘you know Bert, have you looked at Oakland Children’s hospital? We want to start a sickle cell program center, but the patients are all in Oakland and the patient population that would be served is in Oakland. But if you came out to the Bay Area we could partner with you to start that program.
“So, when I walked in the door here (at Oakland) and said ‘I want to create this northern California sickle cell center with UC’ the staff that was here said ‘you know we’re not a research hospital, we are a community based hospital’. I said, ‘I’m not saying you shouldn’t be that but I’m trying to create an opportunity here’ and they said to me ‘as long as you don’t ask for any money you can go and do whatever you want’.
‘They recognized that I had this fire in me to really create something that was novel. And the warmth and community commitment from this place is something that attracted me and then allowed me to build on that.
“For example, when I became the director of the research program we had $500,000 in NIH grants and when I left we had $60 million. We just grew. Why did we grow? Because we cared about the faculty and the community. We had a lovely facility, which was actually the home of the Black Panther party. It was the Black Panthers who started screening for sickle cell on street corners here in Oakland, and they were the start of the national sickle cell act so there’s a history here and I like that history.
“Then I got a sense of the opportunities that stem cell therapies would have for a variety of things, certainly including sickle cell disease, and I thought if there’s a chance to be on the CIRM Board, as an advocate for that sickle cell community, I think I’d be a good spokesperson. So, I applied. I just thought this was an exciting opportunity.
“I thought it was a natural fit for me to add some value, I only want to be on something where I think I add value.”
Bert added value to everything he did. And everyone he met felt valued by him. He was a mentor to so many people, young physicians and nurses, students starting out on their careers. And he was a friend to those in need.
He was an extraordinary man and we are grateful that we were able to call him a colleague, and a friend, for as long as we did.
When Burt stepped down from Children’s his colleagues put together this video about his life and times. It seems appropriate to share it again and remind ourselves of the gift that he was to everyone fortunate enough to know him.