Phoebe Rhea Berman, 89, philanthropist, art lover

November 25, 1999|By Jacques Kelly | Jacques Kelly,SUN STAFF

Phoebe Rhea Berman, a philanthropist who endowed the Johns Hopkins Bioethics Institute, died of heart failure Saturday at Fernwood, her Green Spring Valley home. She was 89.

One of Baltimore's most celebrated hostesses, she owned a thoroughbred racing stable, published a newspaper and collected modern art.

"She possessed what has become a lost sense of civic duty," said Doreen Bolger, director of the Baltimore Museum of Art. "She supported the fabric of the community."

In 1988, Mrs. Berman presented the museum with a painting by artist Mark Rothko, "Black on Red," which Ms. Bolger called "a staggering gift." It remains on permanent display.

For years, Mrs. Berman was a benefactor of the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, endowing an international health professorship in her husband's name and helping create the Edgar Berman and Hubert Humphrey Fund in International Health.

"Phoebe's support said worlds about her foresight and her commitment to making a better world," said William R. Brody, president of the Johns Hopkins University.

"As a philanthropist, she could be personally modest," said retired Circuit Judge Elsbeth L. Bothe, a friend for 50 years. "I went to a concert at the Peabody Conservatory -- and in small print, the program said she had underwritten the whole thing. She didn't even go herself."

Mrs. Berman, who enjoyed classical music, was a patron of Peabody Conservatory concerts.

In a 1990 letter to The Sun, she called Peabody "a pillar of culture" and a "prized jewel in our midst." She funded the current restoration of Peabody's Shapiro House in the 600 block of Washington Place -- a home she had owned in the 1950s.

Her surgeon husband, Dr. Edgar Berman, wrote provocative books, including the 1976 best-seller "The Solid Gold Stethoscope," in which he skewered money-loving physicians. He died in 1987.

"Despite her refined classical features, blue eyes, natural burnished-copper hair and lovely figure, Phoebe was not a hothouse flower. She could still ride a horse in the morning, work in her garden for six hours, manage a large home, and then go to a symphony that night as fresh as when she had awakened," her husband wrote in a 1986 book.

The couple, who married in 1952, lived for years in a spacious residence on West Mount Vernon Place that overlooked the park and fountain.

Always interested in medical issues, in 1997 she endowed the Hopkins Bioethics Institute -- a multidisciplinary unit with a mission of bringing the moral dimension of health policy to medical practice.

In 1960, she accompanied her husband for an extended stay as volunteers at Albert Schweitzer's hospital at Lambarene in what was then French Equatorial Africa.

"I wasn't the best wife, by a long shot, for a doctor. Maybe it was cowardliness. I didn't ever want to be around hospitals. I came from a large family with a lot of tragedy and sickness and maybe that affected me," she said in a 1988 interview in the Johns Hopkins Public Health magazine.

"I volunteered to work in the garden to do anything, to work in the leper colony," she said in the 1988 interview. "But please, I told them, try to spare me the hospital."

When an epidemic broke out in the Schweitzer hospital nursery, she became a volunteer nurse working with sick babies and dying children.

Her interest in horse racing linked to her skills as a hostess. Often in May, during the running of the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, she gave parties at her home.

"She didn't tolerate any kind of pretense. She loved to ask questions, and she loved to debate," said Sylvia Eggleston Wehr, a Johns Hopkins dean and friend. "She was a wonderful hostess, and she always gathered a fascinating array of people."

Mrs. Berman owned several horses, including three named for her -- Phoebe's Donkey, Phoebe's Favorite and Phoebe's Fancy.

"She was a unique lady," said J. William Boniface of Bonita Farm in Darlington, who trained her horses for 30 years. "She had an uncanny instinct in buying horses and art."

Born in Callensburg in western Pennsylvania, the former Phoebe Rhea graduated from Clarion State Teachers College in Pennsylvania. She moved to Baltimore and was a sales associate for the old Marie Codd real estate firm in the 1940s.

In the 1960s, she owned and edited the Carroll County Times with her husband.

No services are to be held.

She is survived by a sister, Rachel Burns of Sligo, Pa.

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