Longest-serving prof. Gert dies at 77 in N.C.
By Abbie Kouzmanoff
Published on Thursday, January 5, 2012
Former philosophy professor Bernard “Bernie” Gert, the longest-serving faculty member in the College’s history, spent his life spreading his love of philosophy to family members and colleagues. Gert, who taught at the College from 1959 until his retirement in 2009, died Dec. 24 of heart failure at his home in Chapel Hill, N.C., according to his son, Joshua Gert. He was 77 years old.
He was an expert in ethics and bioethics, a leading researcher on the philosopher Thomas Hobbes and the founder of the ethics committee at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, according to Joshua Gert.
After growing up in Ohio and receiving an undergraduate degree from the University of Cincinnati, Gert earned a PhD at Cornell University in 1962, according to his wife Esther Gert.
Gert first became interested in philosophy after hearing someone from the University of Cincinnati speak about the subject at his high school, his wife said.
“[He] has loved it all his life since then,” Esther Gert said. “He did exactly what he liked his whole life, which was philosophy.”
Gert also played an instrumental role in shaping how the practice of medical ethics is taught at DHMC and was influential in this field on a national scale, his son said.
“A lot of professional philosophers just do philosophy, but my father served for many, many years on hospital ethics committees,” he said. “He thought moral theories were pointless unless they could be applied.”
The world-renowned theory described in his book “Morality” has kept the text continually in print since 1970, and he was awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Cincinnati in 2006, according to his son.
“My father did live the moral code that he tried to clarify and justify,” Joshua Gert said. “He really was a remarkably upright, solid, reliable guy who did the right thing in many cases when it wasn’t super easy to do.”
Gert had a strong influence on the philosophy department at the College and was its chair for many years, according to former Dartmouth philosophy professor Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, who currently teaches at Duke University.
“He absolutely had a deep influence on my work and the work of many other people, including his former students and other philosophers,” Sinnott-Armstrong said. “He was a constant presence that inspired us all to do better work and also put pressure to live up to his high standards.”
Gert’s ethical system, developed over a period of decades, remains one of the most plausible and interesting moral theories available today, according to Sinnott-Armstrong.
As a professor, Gert encouraged students to make claims and announce their own views, which he critically assessed, Sinnott-Armstrong said.
“He tended to teach in a very Socratic style,” he said. “He was always fair-minded and always had time to help you with your own work and provide feedback.”
Gert was also heavily involved in the Dartmouth Jewish Community, according to his son. He was one of the first Jewish professors hired by the College, Joshua Gert said.
Although his publications and accomplishments were extremely influential, Gert was also proud of his life outside of scholarship, according to his wife.
“His greatest achievement may be his writings, but I might also say it is his family,” she said.
Gert had an enormous influence on his children, Joshua and Heather Gert, who are currently both professors of philosophy, according to Joshua Gert.
“It was so fun to talk with him, and my love for philosophy was an extension of my great love for him,” his son said. “I was very much inspired by my father.”
Gert’s passion for philosophy was evident in all aspects of his life, and he was constantly involved in philosophical conversations and revising his work.
“It was like walking a tight rope — one little move and you’re off into the philosophy,” Joshua Gert said. “I remember hearing the click-click of his old typewriter as he worked on his books late at night while I was trying to fall asleep.”
Sinnott-Armstrong remembers Gert as hardworking and honest.
“He was known to be critical and yet helpful, which is exactly what I wanted in a colleague,” he said.
At the time of his death, Gert was at work on a book on human nature, according to Joshua Gert. It was nearly finished and in the revision process.
Gert’s talents as a philosopher and father were evident to all who knew him, his son said.
“You can’t get everything perfect and have it last forever,” Joshua Gert said. “He had it almost perfect — he saw a lot of great things.”
Bernie Gert is survived by Esther Gert, his wife of 53 years, his children, his son-in-law John Roberts and his daughter-in-law Victoria Costa — both philosophy professors — and his granddaughter Susanna, according to his wife.