LSU Health New Orleans Newsroom

The Passing of Dr. Gerald Berenson

Gerald S. Berenson, MD, Boyd Professor of Cardiology at LSU Health New Orleans School of Medicine, passed away Thursday, November 22, 2018 while visiting family in Houston. He was 96 years old. Dr. Berenson was an internationally known physician-scientist whose work helped shaped our understanding of the causes of heart disease.

A native of Bogalusa, Dr. Berenson pioneered and led the Bogalusa Heart Study, one of the most significant studies of the development of heart disease, diabetes and metabolic syndrome.

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“Dr. Gerald Berenson had an enormous and lasting impact on health," said Larry Hollier, MD, Chancellor of LSU Health New Orleans. “His pioneering Bogalusa Heart Study provided new information about how risk factors in children evolve as they age and the pathogenesis of cardiovascular and metabolic diseases. What he learned from Bogalusa school children influenced the well-being of people the world over. We are proud that such a compassionate physician and accomplished research scientist was a member of the faculty of LSU Health New Orleans School of Medicine at both the beginning and the end of his career. Dr. Berenson's contributions and international stature were recognized when he was named a Boyd Professor - the highest professorial rank awarded by LSU.”

One of the principal findings of the Bogalusa Heart Study changed our understanding about the onset of adult heart disease. A primary finding of the study is that the major causes of adult heart diseases begin in childhood; this includes atherosclerosis, coronary artery disease, hypertension, Type II Diabetes and obesity, which had never been seen before.

Dr. Gerald S. Berenson
“Dr. Berenson’s natural curiosity and unending desire to improve health rather than simply treat disease was the key to the beginning of the Bogalusa Heart Study in 1972,” noted Dr. Frank Smart, LSU Health New Orleans Chief of Cardiology and Berenson protégé. “The Bogalusa Heart Study looked at over 16,000 people from Bogalusa, Louisiana and followed them from birth into adulthood. The impact of the Bogalusa Study cannot be over stated. The study was landmark research because it established a link between diet, exercise, and genetics and the development of coronary heart disease. This internationally acclaimed research project is the foundation for diet and lifestyle interventions that are commonly employed today.”

Following his graduation from Tulane University School of Medicine in 1945, Dr. Berenson served in the United States Navy. He was a Navy doctor at Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune and a ship’s doctor to approximately 400 crew members on the USS Tanner AGS-15.

In 1954, he joined the faculty of LSU Health New Orleans School of Medicine, where he remained for the next 38 years. He rose through the academic ranks becoming a professor and Chief of Cardiology. Dr. Berenson became Director of the first National Heart Lung Blood Institute National Research and Demonstration Center - Arteriosclerosis. The program operated out of LSU Health New Orleans. It was the first and only National Research and Demonstration Center for Arteriosclerosis; the funding for the first year of the program was $2,691,382 and the funding for the second year was $2,892,631; these are the largest one-year grants he received over the course of his research career, although the total research funding he was awarded was $55 million.

“Dr. Berenson was the first to propose and later implement a modern-day coronary care unit at Charity Hospital,” adds Dr. Smart.

Dr. Berenson rejoined the LSU Health New Orleans School of Medicine faculty in 2015. His goal was to continue research and to facilitate the development a Center for Healthy Aging and Longevity at LSU Health.

Over six decades of researching the causes of heart disease, Dr. Berenson authored more than 1,000 peer-reviewed publications. He was elected to leadership positions at the Louisiana affiliate of the American Heart Association, the Southern Society for Clinical Investigation and Louisiana Heart Association. Nationally, he served as Governor for Louisiana of the American College of Cardiology and was invited to join the Association of University Cardiologists, an organization that is limited to 125 cardiologists. He was elected Chairman of the Prevention of Cardiovascular Disease Committee of the American College of Cardiology and was named Laureate of the American College of Physicians. Dr. Berenson was also a president of the American Society of Geriatric Cardiology. He was the recipient of professional awards in cardiology, public health and epidemiology, including the Spirit of Charity Award, the American Heart Association Population Research Prize, the American Heart Association Distinguished Scientist Award, and the Paavo Nurmi Foundation International Award. Dr. Berenson was named 2007 Honorary Alumnus by the LSU Medical Alumni Association.

Dr. Berenson was also honored with numerous awards for community service, philanthropy and humanitarian initiatives, including being named a Paul Harris Fellow by the Bogalusa Rotary Club in 2013 when he also received a Certificate of Merit and Key to the City from Bogalusa Mayor Charles Mizell, as well as the A. I. Botnick Torch of Liberty Award from the Anti-Defamation League of New Orleans (awarded jointly with wife Joan Berenson) in 2014.

Dr. Berenson was featured in the multi-part HBO documentary on obesity entitled “The Weight of the Nation,” which includes a substantial segment on the Bogalusa Heart Study.

Among his other interests, Dr. Berenson bred cattle. He received the “Breeder of the Year” Award from Beefmaster Breeders United at the organization's annual meeting in San Antonio, Texas.

Dr. Berenson is survived by his wife of 67 years, Joan Seidenbach Berenson, four children, Leslie, Ann, Robert and Laurie, as well as nine grandchildren and three great grandchildren.

Services will be held Sunday, November 25, 2018 at Congregation Shir Chadash, 3737 West Esplanade Avenue in Metairie. Visitation begins at 12:00 noon, followed by a service at 1:00 p.m. Burial will be private.