Published: Monday, June 15, 2009
Physician, fugitive, federal prisoner, clinician to the homeless,
advocate for AIDS patients. epidemiologist: That was the arc of Alan
Dr. Berkman, a Vietnam-era radical who spent eight years in prison
for armed robbery and possession of explosives and who later founded
Health GAP a leader in the coalition that helped make AIDS
medication available to millions in the world's poorest countries
died in Manhattan on June 5. He was 63 and lived in Manhattan.
The cause was cancer, with which he had struggled for nearly 20
years, said his wife, Dr. Barbara Zeller.
Eagle Scout; high school salutatorian; National Merit Scholar; honor
student at Cornell, class of 1967; graduate of Columbia's College of
Physicians and Surgeons, class of '71; medical director of the
Highbridge Woodycrest Center in the Bronx, one of the first
residences designed for AIDS patients; vice chairman of the
epidemiology department at Columbia's Mailman School of Public Health
since 2007: Those, too, are parts of Dr. Berkman's record, along with
his years working in clinics in the South Bronx, Lower Manhattan and
His life was laced with an activism that went to extremes, both in
the tumult of the 1960s and '70s and into the Reagan years.
On May 23, 1985, Dr. Berkman and a friend were arrested outside
Doylestown, Pa. In their car, federal agents found a pistol, a
shotgun and keys to a garage that contained 100 pounds of dynamite.
That day ended Dr. Berkman's two decades of participation in
underground groups, among them the Students for a Democratic Society.
Four years earlier, on Oct. 20, 1981, an offshoot of the Weather
Underground had attempted to rob a Brink's armored truck in Nyack,
N.Y. In the shootout, two police officers and a guard died.
A year later, a federal grand jury investigating the case subpoenaed
Dr. Berkman, who, a witness said, had treated one of the robbery
defendants for a gunshot wound. When he was indicted and charged with
being an accessory after the fact, Dr. Berkman jumped bail; he spent
several years on the run.
While a fugitive, he entered a suburban Connecticut supermarket with
a friend; they brandished revolvers, tied up the manager and stole
$21,480. Prosecutors later said the money was used to buy the
explosives found in Doylestown and to support other radical groups.
Dr. Berkman was sentenced to 10 years in prison; he served 8.
In 1994, when a reporter for The New York Times interviewed Dr.
Berkman at El Rio, a clinic in the South Bronx where he was treating
drug-addicted parolees, the doctor, too, was on parole.
"There is plenty to learn from all the mistakes we made," he said at
the time, referring to his radical colleagues. "Power is corrupting.
And the use of violence is a form of power. People motivated to stop
the suffering of others have to be careful not be caught up in the
He changed his dynamics, not his motivation. In 1995, he became a
postdoctoral research fellow at Columbia, working with mentally ill
homeless men who had AIDS.
In 1998 and '99, Dr. Berkman did research in South Africa, where AIDS
was rampant. Upon returning to New York, he gathered a group of
fellow AIDS activists and founded Health Global Access Project, known
as Health GAP, which became one of the leading groups in the campaign
to provide antiretroviral drugs to poor people around the world.
"He was one of the key figures in changing 20 years of U.S. trade
policy on patents and medicine," said James Love, director of
Knowledge Ecology International, one of the organizations that shared
Dr. Berkman's mission.
Health GAP, along with other advocacy groups, successfully lobbied
the Clinton administration to change its opposition to compulsory
licenses orders by foreign governments requiring the owner of a
drug patent to issue a license to a generic manufacturer, making the
drug cheaper. Until that policy change, trade tariffs were often used
against countries that issued compulsory licenses.
At the time, antiretroviral drugs cost about $15,000 a year for a
patient. Now, with some American manufacturers sharply reducing their
prices, and with generic marketers, particularly in India, offering
them at very low prices, the drugs can cost as little as $150 a year.
In 1999, fewer than one million people, all in Western countries, had
access to the H.I.V. medications they needed, said Jennifer Flynn,
managing director of Health GAP. "Now," she said, "there are close to
four million, and more than half of them are in the poorest countries."
Born in Brooklyn on Sept. 4, 1945, Alan Berkman was one of four sons
of Samuel and Mona Osit Berkman. The family later moved to
Middletown, N.Y., where his father owned a plumbing supply company.
Besides Dr. Zeller, whom he married in 1975, Dr. Berkman is survived
by his brothers, Jerry, Larry and Steven; his daughters, Sarah
Zeller-Berkman and Harriet Clark; and a grandson.
Dr. Berkman learned he had a cancer of the lymph nodes while in
prison and had recurring bouts with the disease.
In 1994, while treating parolees in the South Bronx, Dr. Berkman was
asked how someone so committed to saving lives could have joined
groups that were willing to plant bombs.
"I had seen pain in the communities I worked in," he said, and "an
increasing indifference" to that pain. "We became desperate and kept
going further out on the limb."
He added, "Between going to prison and having cancer two times and
knowing that death sits on my shoulder, I try to make every day matter."