Remembering Dr. Bernie Langer, surgical pioneer

Dr. Bernie Langer, the self-professed “accidental liver surgeon,” is recognized as a global pioneer in liver surgery and in 1985 performed the first liver transplant in Toronto, paving the way for the eventual Ajmera Transplant Centre at UHN. (Photo: Temerty Faculty of Medicine, University of Toronto)

UHN Foundation was saddened to hear of the passing of Dr. Bernie Langer, the pioneering surgeon whose dedication to innovation and educating the next generation of surgeon-scientists helped build UHN into the global leader in transplantation it is today.

For almost 40 years, the first Jewish physician hired at Toronto General Hospital (TGH) broke barriers, created and elevated surgical standards, and trained the current generation of academic surgeons. UHN’s former Chair of the Department of Surgery, Dr. Langer passed away at the end of February. He was 89.

The self-professed “accidental liver surgeon” is recognized as a global pioneer in liver surgery and in 1985 performed the first liver transplant in Toronto. Dr. Shaf Keshavjee, Surgeon-in-Chief in the Sprott Department of Surgery, the James Wallace McCutcheon Chair in Surgery, and Director of both the Toronto Lung Transplant Program and the Latner Thoracic Surgery Research Laboratories at UHN, remembers Dr. Langer as a master surgeon who co-founded the Liver Transplant Program at TGH and helped establish UHN as an innovator in the field of transplantation.

Dr. Ed Cole, UHN’s former Physician-in-Chief, says it was Bernie’s realization that the various transplant organs needed to come together to forge the optimal academic transplant program, and his ability to persuade others, which led to the establishment of the Multi-Organ Transplant Program at UHN, the precursor to the Ajmera Transplant Centre

Dr. Langer’s professional successes have impacts across Toronto and beyond. His determination to deliver the best in patient care raised the standards of cancer care in Ontario and influenced other models around the country. As an educator, his legacy is strongly felt by the many surgeons he taught, now working at UHN themselves as well as at many other hospitals around the world. His unique focus on combining research and surgical education meant Canada’s best and brightest no longer had to leave home to become groundbreaking surgeon-scientists; they could train at UHN. The results of this philosophy are reflected in the highly innovative work underway at the Ajmera Transplant Centre each and every day.

Further building on his dedication to education and sharing knowledge, Dr. Langer and his wife Ryna, together with friends and associates, generously established the Bernard and Ryna Langer Visiting Professorship in Transplantation at UHN in 2021. Each year, the Professorship will enable a clinician or scientist of international prominence to visit the Ajmera Transplant Centre to exchange academic knowledge and clinical best practices, and to forge new collaborations. The impacts of Dr. Langer’s legacy will continue to be felt by new generations of surgeon-scientists.

“The Hawk,” as he was nicknamed, was recognized as both fearsome and deeply respected. He wanted the best for his trainees, the best for his colleagues, and the very best for his patients. His desire to connect with individual patients, and ensure he was doing what was best for them, drove him personally, and was foundational to his many successes.

“Exceptionally gifted people often leave a clear legacy by which they are defined by future generations,” says Dr. Bryce Taylor, former Surgeon-in-Chief at UHN. “Of all Bernie’s accomplishments and accolades in recognition of his achievements in academic surgical life, the enduring legacy and lessons he taught us who knew him well, were to live life by example, and to be profoundly devoted to your family.”

Thanks to the support and partnership of numerous donors including Dr. Langer himself, Dr. Langer’s vision for a centre of transplant excellence where patients receive cutting-edge care and emerging surgeons can learn from the best has been realized.

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