In Memoriam

Bernard Lytton, pioneering surgeon and committed Yale citizen

A pioneer in kidney transplantation and bladder replacement, Lytton was also founding director of Yale’s the Koerner Center for Emeritus Faculty. He was 96.
Bernard Lytton
Bernard Lytton

Dr. Bernard Lytton, an early pioneer in kidney transplantation and bladder replacement who was also the master of Jonathan Edwards College for a decade and the founding director of Yale’s Henry Koerner Center for Emeritus Faculty, died on Oct. 24 in England. He was 96.

Lytton, the Donald Guthrie Professor of Surgery, Emeritus at the Yale School of Medicine, partnered with Dr. Howard Levitin, a Yale nephrologist, to open the first dialysis unit in Connecticut. He also performed the first kidney transplant at Yale and in the State of Connecticut in 1967, making the Department of Urology an early leader in the field.

Years later, Lytton recalled that history-making surgery. “There was a bad moment during the transplant operation: after I had completed the anastomosis of the blood vessels and the kidney began to make urine, I suddenly realized that the kidney was upside down,” he wrote in his memoirs. “My heart sank, until I remembered from my physiology classes that it did not matter which way up the organs were, since peristalsis overcame gravity. This is exactly what happened. Later it became common practice to put a kidney in upside down if it made the operation easier.”

Soon, Lytton and his colleagues in the Department of Urology were performing two or three kidney transplants every month. They later recruited experts in immunology to help develop better techniques to reduce organ rejection and improve results. Lytton subsequently proved wrong the conventional wisdom that patients with kidney disease fared better on dialysis than those who had kidney transplants.

In other surgical advances, Lytton attempted to develop a solution to the problem of infection caused by the use of external bags in replacing diseased bladders in patients with bladder cancer. He became an early adopter of new techniques by which to construct such intestinal pouches, which yielded great healthier outcomes for hundreds of patients. In the 1980s, he established himself as an early adopter of less invasive surgical methods for treating kidney stones, using shockwave and laser lithotripsy, and he conducted extensive research on the use of radiation to treat prostate cancer. For these contributions, he received the American Urological Association’s Hugh Hampton Young Award for outstanding contributions to the study of genitourinary tract disorders in 1985.

In 1986 Lytton’s life took a turn when he accepted Yale President A. Bartlett Giamatti’s invitation to become the acting master of Branford College for a semester while John Merriman, who was then head of the college, was on leave. The semester was such a success — the students took an instant liking to Lytton and his wife Norma — that Lytton was appointed to the mastership of Jonathan Edwards by Giamatti’s successor, Benno Schmidt, when that position opened in 1987.

During Lytton’s decade as head of Jonathan Edwards, he and Norma were beloved by students. While he resigned as Section Chief of Urology to fill that role he otherwise retained his medical duties; he’d leave the college in the early hours of the morning but return for lunch, walking back and forth to the hospital and medical school several times a day. Always popular as a teacher at Yale School of Medicine — he had been dubbed “Lytton from Britain, the Lord of the Flies,” and had won the Francis Gilman Blake Award for teaching — he now turned his attention to educating undergraduates in a different way. And he achieved the same respect and popularity. Norma Lytton, an activist partner in leadership of the college, helped see to it that the university would offer spouses appointments as associate masters, finally recognizing the close partnership that she and so many  spouses had shared with heads of colleges over time..

Just as Lytton was retiring from JE, Yale created the Koerner Center to benefit the university’s retired faculty. Lytton was on the committee that formed the center and later accepted an appointment by then-President Richard Levin as its director. At the time, Lytton pointed out that running the center was similar to running a college — for faculty this time, instead of students.  

He later recalled that “the position seemed to offer an unusual opportunity to create a new entity at Yale — namely an ‘emeritus college’ where retired members of the faculty could come together to exchange ideas and enjoy each other’s company, especially those from different disciplines who may not have had an opportunity to do so during their busy and overburdened lives as faculty members.”

Lytton forged a community of more than 150 Koerner fellows representing every part of the university. Fellows to this day teach undergraduate courses and may receive office space and research grants. The center sponsors lectures, films, exhibits, and cultural outings. One highly successful program, called Intellectual Trajectories, memorializes the professional biographies of center fellows.

Born in London in 1926, Lytton carried vivid memories of German air raids during his high school years. As a teenager, he joined the Home Guard, initially known as the LDV, which stood for local defense volunteers but which he and his peers joked stood for the “look, duck, and vanish brigade.”

After graduating from high school, he had planned to study history at Cambridge University before pursuing a medical degree. However, as he recounted in his Koerner Center memoir: “The exigencies of the war prevented it.” Too young to join the army, he was advised by the draft board to go directly to medical school. He was accepted at London Hospital Medical College, where he was awarded the Haking Prize in Obstetrics and Gynecology. After completing medical school and a two-year internship, he joined the Royal Air Force as a medical officer, where he learned to fly and served during the Korean War as physician aboard a troop ship.

After completing his military service, he returned to London to teach anatomy as an assistant professor at University College London, where he took a seminar with Rupert Billingham, Leslie Brent, and Peter Medawar on their classical work on immunological tolerance, for which they subsequently received the Nobel Prize. The seminar sparked Lytton’s career-long interest in immunology and heavily influenced his later research on kidney transplantation. Following additional surgical training at the Royal College of Surgeons and a British Empire Cancer Research Fellowship at Kings College Hospital, he emigrated to the United States in 1962 to take a position at Yale’s Department of Urology, rising to Chief of the Section of Urology four years later.

During his time as a cancer research fellow at Kings College Hospital, he worked closely with Cecily Saunders, who became the founder of Hospice. Shortly after Lytton arrived at Yale, he invited Saunders to come and speak. It was this meeting that led to the founding of the first hospice in the U.S., still located in Branford, Connecticut.

Lytton was predeceased by his first wife Heleine, and his second wife, Norma. He is survived by his children Sharon, Simon, Timothy, and Jennifer; six grandchildren; and his partner of 11 years, Dawn Wood. A memorial service is being planned for the spring.

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