City honors late ‘Dr. B’ on the date of his birth

Published 3:36 am Saturday, September 21, 2019

Thursday would have been Dr. Gerald Berenson’s 97th birthday. But although the beloved founder of the Bogalusa Heart Study passed away on Nov. 22, 2018, friends and colleagues made sure this week that his life was celebrated yet again.

Bogalusa Mayor Wendy Perrette officially proclaimed Thursday as “Dr. Gerald S. Berenson Day” in the city, at a small private ceremony held at Maria’s Mexican Restaurant in Bogalusa. Among those in attendance were past colleagues, employees, family members and friends of the late Berenson.

Perrette noted that that the revolutionary study helped to put “Bogalusa on the map.”

“Dr. Berenson made such a positive impact for our city,” said Perrette, who noted that she was also a Heart Study participant.

Berenson was born in Bogalusa on Sept. 19, 1922, and graduated from Bogalusa High School. He earned his doctorate at Tulane University and joined the faculty at Tulane’s Department of Medicine in 1948. After a two-year fellowship in pediatrics at the University of Chicago, Berenson returned to Louisiana and joined the LSU medical facility in 1954.

He then began 37 years of service at the LSU School of Medicine in New Orleans, where he served as Section Chief of Cardiology. It was during that time that Berenson launched the Bogalusa Heart Study, which is revolutionary as its data showed for the first time that risk factors for heart disease often begin in childhood.

More than 16,000 Bogalusa children and adults have participated in the more than 175 studies that the Bogalusa Heart Study has conducted. The subjects of the heart studies and sub-studies have ranged from subjects including normal aging, to smoking, to babies. Approximately 93 percent of eligible children participated in the initial study.

On Thursday, Berenson’s special colleagues and friends Acy Hartfield and Dr. Jihua Xu were among those who reflected on his life and those he inspired. Hartfield was a former project director and Xu is a cardiologist at LSU in New Orleans.

Dr. Frank Smart, professor of medicine and chief of cardiology at LSU Health Sciences Center, was the special guest speaker. Smart said that Berenson’s research and legacy live on today, and continue to inspire scientific studies that will continue long after his passing.

“It’s really fitting to honor him today, but more importantly we’re also honoring all of Bogalusa,” said Smart, who noted the impressive 93-percent child participation rate. “You certainly deserve to be on the map just for that.

“I can speak for LSU and say that we are incredibly grateful to have had Dr. Berenson as a leader of our team.”

Also in attendance Thursday were Berenson’s daughters, Ann Berenson Goldfarb of Houston, Texas, and Laurie Berenson Maas of Baton Rouge. Both expressed their appreciation to Bogalusa for recognizing their father on such an emotional day — as it was his birthday.

Several other past employees also spoke glowingly of Berenson, including Rita Clayton. Clayton was a longtime nurse with the Bogalusa Heart Study, and gave several examples of Berenson’s selflessness and generosity.

She displayed a rock from the Sea of Galilee in Israel, which Berenson had given her and which she continues to cherish. She also noted that one time Berenson was scheduled to receive a national award in Chicago, Ill., and he paid for plane flights and lodging for his nurses to join him on the trip.

“He was just a down-to-earth guy,” she said. “He never met a stranger.”