Sports Medicine Pioneer

John Bergfeld ’60, P’86 keeps athletes in the game
by Patrick Broadwater
John Bergfeld ’60, P’86 was just looking to make a few extra bucks. Little did he know an impromptu gig as a sideline physician at a high school football game would shape his professional life. Bergfeld and his wife, Wilma P’86, had just graduated from Temple Medical School in 1964 and moved to Wilma’s hometown of Cleveland, where they accepted internships at the Cleveland Clinic. To help make ends meet while they started a family, Bergfeld took moonlighting jobs in emergency rooms. One night, he saw a flyer recruiting physicians to cover high school football games.

“I went to the first game, met the coach and took care of minor injuries,” says Bergfeld, who lettered in football at Bucknell. Despite the fact that sports medicine wasn’t yet a widely accepted area of practice — it wasn’t formally recognized as a subspecialty under the American Board of Emergency Medicine until 1992 — Bergfeld was hooked.

John Bergfeld smiling in dark gray suit with red tie and lapel pin
Photo Credit: The Cleveland Clinic Foundation
John Bergfeld ’60, P’86 built a career caring for the well-being of athletes.
“I was at the right place at the right time,” he says.

He continued to support local high school football teams and became team physician at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland while finishing his orthopedic residency. When he joined the Navy in 1970, he treated injured Marines returning from Vietnam and became team physician for the Midshipmen in Annapolis, Md. By the time he returned to the Cleveland Clinic in 1973, its sports medicine program had gotten off the ground, and Bergfeld became one of its foremost experts. He served as team doctor to a handful of organizations, including the Cleveland Browns (1976-2003), Cleveland Cavaliers (1986-2001) and the U.S. Nordic Ski Team (1982-92), while also mentoring generations of orthopedic and sports medicine fellows who would go on to have great careers of their own.

During his nearly 60 years at the Cleveland Clinic, Bergfeld served as the head of sports medicine and as senior surgeon. He also was named president of the American College of Sports Medicine and the American Othopaedic Society for Sports Medicine. He received honors from the city of Cleveland and the NFL, and was bestowed several lifetime achievement awards for his service to the orthopedic profession.

Meanwhile, Wilma built a remarkably distinguished career as a world-renowned expert in clinical dermatology and dermatopathology, becoming the first woman president of the American Academy of Dermatology. “Our friends like to say that she is the famous Dr. Bergfeld,” he says.

Accolades aside, Bergfeld is particularly proud of the six surgeries he performed on his former Bucknell teammates and coach, Hall of Famer Bob Odell. “I’m honored that someone who knew me as a sweaty, bloody football player would trust me in that way,” he says. “That’s a very special thing.”