Lives of the fellows

Bernard Tabatznik

b.8 January 1927 d.14 August 2016
BSc Wits(1946) MB BCh(1949) FRCP(1980)

Bernard (‘Bunny’) Tabatznik was medical director of the North Charles Hospital, Baltimore, Maryland, USA. He was born in Mir, in what was then Poland, but moved with his parents in his pre-teen years to South Africa. He was the son of Mendel Tabatznik, who wrote poetry in Yiddish and accumulated an extensive library of Yiddish literature; he later founded a painting contracting firm in burgeoning Johannesburg. Bernard Tabatznik attended high school in Johannesburg and then enrolled at the University of Witwatersrand Medical School in 1943. His close friends called him ‘Taba’. He loved to play with names; during his internship at Baragwanath Hospital in Johannesburg he elected to be called ‘Tshabalala’, a popular Zulu clan name.

In 1951 he travelled to the UK in pursuit of further training at the National Heart Hospital, the National Hospital for Nervous Diseases and the Postgraduate Medical School of London. He also worked in Hillingdon and Ashford. He returned to South Africa for a couple of years as a physician in the professorial unit at the Non-European Hospital and also at Johannesburg General Hospital.

Disillusioned by the tightening of legislated racial discrimination in South Africa, he departed for the United States in 1959 to pursue a fellowship in cardiology at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore, Maryland. Shortly afterwards, he was appointed as physician-in-chief at Sinai Hospital, originally the Hebrew Hospital and Asylum of Baltimore, established in 1866. He became director of its growing division of cardiology and cardiopulmonary laboratory, appointments he held until 1972, when he was appointed medical director at North Charles Hospital, also in Baltimore.

For the next several years he was the principal investigator in a series of drug trials in the management of angina pectoris. He was the main author of more than 60 publications, covering a large range of subjects, including heart sounds, murmurs, postpericardiotomy syndrome and prolonged electrocardiographic monitoring.

He is probably best remembered for his role in the development of the implantable cardioverter defibrillator (ICD), a significant cardiovascular innovation of the 20th century, first developed at Sinai Hospital, Baltimore. As director of the cardiology division, Bernard Tabatznik was intimately involved in the initial stages of its development, having garnered together the team that eventually led to the first successful implantation in a human patient.

He had met up with Harold (Hans) Bix, who fled Austria in 1939, having learned the basics of cardiac arrhythmia from his mentor the legendary Karel Frederik Wenckebach [Munk’s Roll, Vol.V, p.440]. A group of physicians met each week to analyse recordings of cardiac arrhythmias. Continuous (Holter) monitoring of the electrocardiogram in ambulatory patients became available in 1961. Mieczyslaw Smaw (Michel) Mirowski, who had expatriated himself from Poland and moved via Kiev in the Ukraine, ultimately joined Sinai in Baltimore, working with a biomedical instrumentation engineer, William (Bill) Staewen, who with Mirowski designed and constructed a prototype defibrillator, which was tested in the dog laboratory, later followed by the development by an electronics company of a miniaturised version. The first implant in a human was performed at Johns Hopkins Hospital in 1980. In further development, the US Food and Drug Administration approved the use of the defibrillator in 1985, now used in prevention of malignant cardiac arrhythmias in a variety of disorders. In 1991 the biomedical engineers of Sinai Hospital were inducted into the Space Technology Hall of Fame, followed by induction into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2002.

In recognition of his leadership role, Sinai Hospital in Baltimore instituted a lectureship named for him, the Bernard Tabatznik lecture, that provides an annual forum for a distinguished cardiovascular researcher. In 1977, he was appointed as Humanitarian Man of the Year by the Save-a-Heart Foundation, Baltimore.

He was an ardent fan of baseball, and in particular the Baltimore Orioles, where he served as team physician for many years. He was a soccer player in his youth and remained a follower of Arsenal Football Club in the British Premier League. It was in 1989 that a fellow classmate Dennis Glauber, with the enthusiasm of Bunny Tabatznik, conceived the idea of a reunion of Witwatersrand medical graduates to be held in a succession of centres in the US. Bernard Tabatznik attended every single reunion and was integral to the fun and the fellowship. His unexpected death was mourned by all who attended during the last reunion in San Antonio, Texas.

He was first married to Marjorie Turner in 1956. They had three children – Darron Mark, Keith Donald and Ilana Wendy. He married a second time, to Charline Harmon of Monterey, Virginia, in 1992. He maintained his contacts with South Africa, especially in visiting his sister, who had continued to live in Johannesburg. He devoted his life’s work to three areas that interested him most: patient care, clinical research and teaching. He died in an automobile accident, he was killed instantly and it is believed that a sudden cardiac event precipitated the accident.

Krishna Somers

(Volume XII, page web)

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