Obituary: Bernard Sarnat, 99, UCLA professor, pioneer in field of craniofacial biology

Posted on: Thursday, 11/03/2011

Dr. Bernard G. Sarnat, D.D.S., an eminent plastic surgeon and research scientist who made pioneering contributions to the understanding of craniofacial development and the causes of facial deformities, died Oct. 21 in Los Angeles of respiratory failure. He was 99.

Sarnat joined the UCLA School of Dentistry in 1969 as an adjunct professor of oral biology and in 1974 received a joint appointment in the UCLA School of Medicine's division of plastic surgery. He also operated a private practice as a plastic surgeon in Beverly Hills and was associated with Cedars–Sinai Medical Center for more than 20 years, first as chief of plastic surgery and later as a senior research scientist.

Sarnat's groundbreaking studies of how biology influences medical and dental treatment led to major improvements in the field. He was one of the first researchers to use the stain known as alizarin red S to document the pattern of growth in bones and teeth. He was particularly concerned with craniofacial development and the biological circumstances that lead to deformities of the facial structures, especially as they affect surgical procedures.

"Dr. Bernard Sarnat was a true surgeon–scientist," said Dr. James Bradley, professor of plastic surgery and holder of the Bernard G. Sarnat, M.D., Endowed Chair in Craniofacial Biology at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. "His quest to answer questions in the field of craniofacial biology led to landmark discoveries that are used to benefit countless children today."

Sarnat's generous nature was exemplified by the numerous lectureships he endowed, including the Bernard G. Sarnat International Lectureship in Bone Biology at UCLA, which since its inception in 1984 has presented the research of scores of internationally renowned investigators.

In 1999, Sarnat provided funds for the establishment of the Bernard G. Sarnat Endowed Chair in Craniofacial Biology at the Geffen School of Medicine, for use by the division of plastic surgery in conducting research in the area of craniofacial biology, with an emphasis on the etiology and prevention of craniofacial deformities. He established a similar endowed chair at the University of Chicago.

Sarnat was born in Chicago in 1912, a child of immigrant parents from Russia, where his two older siblings were born. He earned his medical degree from the University of Chicago and a master's of science degree and doctor of dental surgery degree from the University of Illinois. After World War II, he pioneered an early model for distance-education by setting up a telephone network to simultaneously broadcast a series of lectures on dental topics to 260 cities and more than 12,000 students.

Sarnat helped establish the Plastic Surgery Research Council, a preeminent plastic surgery research group, more than 50 years ago. The author or co-author of more than 220 scientific journal papers and books, Sarnat lectured extensively at universities and professional societies throughout the U.S. and the world. His research earned wide recognition, and he was honored with more than 25 prestigious awards from around the globe.

During his career, Sarnat was recognized as a caring, skillful and compassionate plastic surgeon and was nicknamed the "Dean of Plastic Surgery" by his colleagues.

Sarnat retired from surgical practice in 1991 but was still working hard through early 2010 to publish his book "Craniofacial Biology and Craniofacial Surgery" (World Scientific Publishing Co., 2010), which encompasses more than 60 years of basic science discovery. As recently as spring 2011, he was still in his office, putting the finishing touches on academic works.

Sarnat died just short of his 70th wedding anniversary, which would have been Christmas Day.

He is survived by wife, Rhoda, of Los Angeles; son Gerry of Portola Valley, Calif.; daughter Joan of Berkeley, Calif.; grandchildren Zoe, Eli and Emma Sarnat, and Jascha and Michael Hoffman; and great-grandchildren Elliot and Simon Aron.