Remembrances

In memory of Dr. Howard Leslie Bleich.

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Remembrances

Howard was a much admired pioneer of clinical informatics applications, and also a gentlemen always ready to listen and help. His passing is a great professional loss to us all in health informatics. Like so many in the health sciences all over the country, I want to add my condolences and remembrances. He was a friendly and trailblazing colleague. I still have (and use!) some of the resource files he gave me generously decades ago. I hope the new generations will learn from Howard's kindness and generosity. We should not forget to celebrate his life and career that meant so much to all of us. With kind memories, Andrew Balas
Submitted by Andrew Balas on Fri, 10/08/2021 - 06:16
It is sad to have lost Howard Bleich, one of the early great leaders in the field of clinical informatics. I remember Howard with great fondness, not only for his inspirational work on the acid-base program and PaperChase, but for his humor and humanity. The Bleich-Slack team was highly influential and they were great, kind colleagues – even while challenging those with whom they may have had philosophic differences about the field's directions. I remember well, as a young faculty member, giving an informal seminar in their lab and enjoying the good-natured exchange of views – notably about artificial intelligence and its role in the field. He also was a great debate participant back in the days when the American College of Medical Informatics routinely sponsored debates at the annual AMIA symposium. In 1995, he was wonderful in a debate that I convened on "The Federal Role in the Health Information Infrastructure: A Debate of the Pros and Cons of Government Intervention" (https://academic.oup.com/jamia/article/3/4/249/751458). Still a pertinent topic! Farewell, Howard. I remember you with great respect and affection. Ted Shortliffe
Submitted by Ted Shortliffe on Sun, 09/26/2021 - 18:27
My first personal interaction with Howard resulted from a visit with Howard by Dr. Eugene Stead. Dr. Stead had visited Howard and was impressed by his demonstration of the acid-base decision support program. Returnng to Duke, Dr. Stead asked me to bring the program to Duke. I visited Howard; he demonstrated the program and gave me a copy of the code and a couple of sample cases. The program was written in Mumps which I had heard of, but did not know. I told Howard I would reprogram the system in a language, GEMISCH, we had developed at Duke. Howard then told me it was impossible to code the program in any language except MUMPS. So bac k at Duke, I taaught myself Mumps from the code (an interesting process with a Mumps manual) and reprogrammed the system in Gemisch. I was able to buplicate the few (maybe 3) test cases Howard had shared with me. With great pride, I came back to Howard and showed him 3 cases run with Gemisch. Howard said that was inadequate proof. So he gave me 100 cases to work with. Those 100 cases helped me remove numerous errors, but finally I was able to match his results in all cases. That gained me Howard's respect for the rest of time. Duke had recruited Warner Slack for Duke, but because of Warner's daughter's love for ice skating, he joined Howard at BI in the cold north. Warner and I became great friends, and we would sit together at dinners and meetings. Most often Howard and his wife would join us. I have great respect for Howard and what he accomplished in medicine and informatices. He was very reserved - quite a contrast to me. We have lost one of the true pioneers in the field. The new generation of informaticians will never have the pleasure of knowing Howard. Rest in peace.
Submitted by W. Ed Hammond on Fri, 09/24/2021 - 10:48
Howard was a kind and brilliant man whose innovations moved the field forward. I first met Howard when I was asked by Octo Barnett to assist the BI and PaperChase (a biomedical literature search engine available at the time) with their search functionality. I had written a medical stemmer that i shared with Howard. Mine was written in Mumps, of course. Howard incorporated it into PaperChase but later told me he had to rewrite it to fit it into their architecture. He gave me 400 free hours of literature searching (gold) in return. Since then we have had many conversations at AMIA meetings. He was a bright and engaging leader who will be truly missed. I am glad to have known him.
Submitted by Peter L. Elkin, MD on Fri, 09/24/2021 - 09:08
As several have noted, Howard Bleich was unusually gentlemanly. He must have known that he and I would disagree on certain topics, but during visits to Harvard, he usually invited me into his office and shut the door, presaging a conversation about a potentially contentious subject. At one extreme it might be way down in the weeds on lexical processing, and he would want me to explain something to him. When I would mention some relevant paper (not written by me) he would proceed to find the paper in his office library and we would go over it, in detail. At the other extreme, he wanted to know why Route 128 (the highway circling Boston) had not turned into Silicon Valley (where I lived). He never asked a question without listening carefully to my answer. Needless to say, I had to think very carefully before answering. I've never met anyone else like him. - Mark Mark Samuel Tuttle, FACMI 20 Hillcrest Drive Orinda, CA 94563 USA 925-899-3099 m.
Submitted by Mark Samuel Tut... on Fri, 09/24/2021 - 08:39
I first met Howard not in an informatics context, but as a Harvard medical student. He was the proctor for our second year renal pathophysiology class. He posed a question to the class about the physiology of kidney disease. Of course, we were too green to have any idea of the right answer. So, Dr. Bleich goes to the blackboard and says, "Well, let's work it out from first principles. Who remembers the atomic weigh of sodium...?" At that point, we knew we had a great teacher! Later, in my years as a neurology resident rotating through the Beth Israel, I would occasionally run into Howard. At one point, after a major snowstorm that had shut down much of the city, I saw him in the hall. He commented that he was delighted to be snowed in to the hospital because he could get so much work done! We will miss him.
Submitted by David McCallie on Thu, 09/23/2021 - 20:07
Howard was a gentle, kind and very modest person. He was dedicated to teaching and taking care of patients. His long time close relationship with Warner and what both of them together contributed to our field was so well stated as they jointly got the Morrie Collen award . It was indeed a honor and a pleasure to know him. We can truly say about Howard that his life was well lived and a gift to all who where privileged to know him.
Submitted by Marion Ball on Thu, 09/23/2021 - 19:12
Howard is one of the true Founding Fathers of the field of Biomedical Informatics. He touched lives through the clinicians who used the information systems that he and his team developed and the uncountable number of patients whose care was managed and lives were improved through the use of his systems. He will be missed by those with whom he worked personally on a day-by-day basis, but also by those of us who benefited from his leadership and care of our infant field.
Submitted by Bill Tierney on Thu, 09/23/2021 - 17:54
Howard was a brilliant and kind man with a keen wit. I first met Howard when interviewing for a fellowship in the Center for Clinical Computing - I remember him asking me about why manhole covers were round (so they couldn't fall through the hole) and explaining that if someone ordered 1000 hamburgers at McDonalds, you would make a burger and give it to them, making the next ones while they were eating - this was an analogy for how to search the medical literature and return results to users as you found them. I truly think that PaperChase was one of his most amazing accomplishments - boolean list searches of indexed medical literature seems like such an obvious idea today, but was groundbreaking at the time. I was privileged to know Howard and to have the chance to learn from him.
Submitted by Jonathan Einbinder on Wed, 09/22/2021 - 16:13
Howard was brilliant, kindly, giving of his time. I first met Howard — the first informatics person I ever met — when I was an intern at Brigham & Women’s. I had heard about PaperChase and he helped me make it available to the Brigham staff, through one of those big acoustic-coupler modems connected to a Teletype in a supply closet on the medical floor! Howard and Warner guided my early career in other ways, helping me learn about the CCC system as we built BICS on its great foundation — and on their great shoulders. Many deep thanks for all of it.
Submitted by Jonathan Teich on Tue, 09/21/2021 - 20:26
Getting to know Howard was certainly a foundational part of my time at DCI. His wisdom, like Warner’s, colored everything we did and I’m grateful to have learned from it. Best to his family.
Submitted by Eli Kaldany on Tue, 09/21/2021 - 18:16
I first met Howard when I moved to Harvard in 2005, but I had the pleasure of corresponding with him well before then. Howard sent me a lengthy, scholarly letter in the early 1990’s, I believe, asking for my help on linguistic matters. At the time, I was at the NLM where I had initiated an NLP research program. Howard wanted to better understand the rules of word formation, so that he could more completely incorporate those in his PaperChase program. The letter came out of the blue, and it was such fun to communicate with him about this topic. Then when I later joined Harvard, he was very welcoming, and we continued to have engaging conversations about a variety of topics of interest to both of us. I am glad to have known him.
Submitted by Alexa McCray on Tue, 09/21/2021 - 10:37
Thank you for your company and your contribution to science and the betterment of us all. Rest well. Moe mai, moe mai, moe mai ra
Submitted by Dr Shane Reti on Mon, 09/20/2021 - 15:11
Truly one of the greats if not one of the founding fathers, of the field of Medical Informatics. I met him and got to speak to him briefly in the 1990's and 2000's. I was just starting out and found his advice and insights indispensable. I found him to be brilliant and incredibly witty. He ad a great presentation style with just the right touch of sarcasm and humor. He will be missed.
Submitted by Joseph Kannry on Mon, 09/20/2021 - 14:20
I first met Howard in 1975 at the Beth Israel hospital. He was already famous and I was thinking about exploring job opportunities. He gave me a tour and I recall running after him as he descended 2 steps at at time in the stairwell. His acid-base program was written in MUMPS and I was a LISP programmer. I didn’t think he and Warner would ever be successful in building a hospital information system so I returned to MIT and soon applied to medical school. In 1982, I opened the NEJM and read an article describing PaperChase written by Howard and colleagues and my life changed. I realized 2 things. First I would never need to go to the library again because articles would come to me, and more importantly I wanted to work with Howard and Warner when I finished my residency because their genius, passion and compassion would change American healthcare for the better.
Submitted by Charles Safran on Mon, 09/20/2021 - 14:02
Howard Bleich was a giant in the history of computing in medicine. The systems that Howard, Warner Slack and their group built for Beth Israel Hospital and, later, for Brigham and Women's Hospital, were the finest clinical computing systems of their time--beloved by the health professionals who used them. Howard's work in creating prototype systems in clinical problem-solving (acid-base disorders) and in literature retrieval (PaperChase) influenced much subsequent work in these areas. Ironically, Howard was recruited to the faculty of the Department of Medicine at Beth Israel primarily as an investigator in nephrology, but practical obstacles emerged. So, instead, he focused his brilliance on what had been an avocation--computing--and began to apply it to medical practice. The rest is history.
Submitted by Anthony L Komaroff on Mon, 09/20/2021 - 13:10
It was sad to learn of Howard's passing, unexpectedly for me. Howard and I first met when I was in medical school, many years ago. I didn't know him well, personally, but his work quickly became widely known to students. His acid-base computer model was ground breaking for it's time, and it was exceptionally useful, as we were learning to provide clinical care. By the time I joined the Division of Clinical Informatics, Howard had already retired. And that meant only interacting with him occasionally. He was a genuinely wonderful person, clinician and teacher and, of course, a pioneer and pre-eminent contributor to the field. The medical world will miss him greatly.
Submitted by Stan Finkelstein on Mon, 09/20/2021 - 12:13
I send my condolences to Howard's family. As a former fellow of DCI, I learned immensely from the ground breaking work of Howard and Warner. Howard will be missed. His work will continue to influence informatics going forward.
Submitted by Jorge Rodriguez on Mon, 09/20/2021 - 11:53
Howard was an icon in so many ways. I knew Warner better--we had talked a lot, and he served as chair of my professorial committee. But the development of BICS was a great contribution as was his acid-base work. BICS was in many ways the first application that was designed for front-line providers. Many of my best memories of Howard ironically were of playing tennis with him. We played at the Murr Center, with a group that was started by Octo Barnett. Howard wasn't a regular member of our group but he came in many times when we needed someone. I could hardly believe I was on a tennis court with these two giants of the informatics world.
Submitted by David Bates on Fri, 09/17/2021 - 15:24