MICHAEL GOLDBERGER, RESEARCHER, RESPECTED TEACHER, POLITICAL ACTIVIST
by Andy Wallace, Inquirer Staff Writer
Michael Goldberger, 56, of Center City, a researcher who devoted his career to the search for ways to restore mobility and feeling to people suffering from spinal cord injuries, died Wednesday at the home of a friend in Penn Valley after a lengthy illness.
He had conducted research for the last 19 years at the Medical College of Pennsylvania, and before that, at the University of Chicago and as a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Pennsylvania.
When he died, said E. Hazel Murphy, chairman of the department of anatomy and neurobiology at MCP, he was an international authority on spinal cord injuries.
In addition, he had been directing transplantation experiments that held great hope for humans" who had lost the use of their limbs because of spinal cord damage, said Marion Murray, co-leader of the group and a professor of anatomy and neurobiology at MCP. "It is the culmination of a lifetime of work," she said.
Dr. Goldberger was a short man, about 5 feet, 4 inches; bald except for a dark blond fringe around the ears. He had a wispy beard and mustache and he wore an earring. He had been a dancer once and he jogged and worked out to stay in shape.
"He owned a tie and wore it occasionally, but he was not a formal person," Murray said. He loved music, especially Mozart and opera, as well as literature and drama.
Dr. Goldberger had a great effect on the lives of students, co-workers and friends.
"He was a leader in research and he was probably the best teacher in the department," Murphy said. "Medical students practically fought for the privilege of getting his attention."
The students came to him because he was creative and devoted to excellence, she said. "And he was extraordinarily generous with his time."
He was, said Murray, "warm, contentious, exceptional, scrappy, opinionated.
"He was a very moral person, insistent on certain priorities in life. He was not the most practical person, but he was strong and committed to important issues."
"He was the last remaining communist," she said, "but he never was a member of the party. He had strong left-wing interests."
While attending medical school at Emory University in Atlanta in the late 1950s and early 1960s, he was involved in civil rights marches and protests. Later, in Chicago, he spoke out against the Vietnam War. He also took part in early gay-rights activities. "He never tried to hide (that he was gay)," said his mother, Lillian Rosen. "He was very open about it."
His fervent commitment to human rights was with him from the start. "He said, 'It's because you always kept me in a red diaper,' " his mother recalled.
Those political activities sometimes got him into trouble, Murray said.
Once when Dr. Goldberger was attending Emory, his father threatened to stop paying for medical school if Dr. Goldberger did not stop protesting, she said. Dr. Goldberger promised and all was well.
Soon afterward, Look magazine published on its cover a picture of a demonstration in Atlanta, with Dr. Goldberger "clearly recognizable" as one of the protesters.
The money continued, but Dr. Goldberger dropped out of medical school anyway in his third year. He felt hospital officials and doctors "were laying for him," Murray said. "It was the early days of the movement and they were not sympathetic to outside rabble-rousers."
He decided to switch to research into anatomy and neurobiology, in which he had long had an interest.
Then, at the University of Chicago, Murray said, Dr. Goldberger failed to get tenure after six years.
"He was a good teacher and he did his research," Murray said. "It was clear he was not the kind of person they were looking for." She said that he was too outspoken and that his lifestyle did not match those of the university administration.
At Medical College of Pennsylvania, where he had been professor of anatomy since 1973, there were few such problems and he had the time and energy to focus on his goal of finding ways to treat people suffering from spinal cord injury.
During that time he published scores of magazine articles and abstracts and a book on the topic and lectured and took part in symposia around the world.
His latest work was in basic research using animals, said Murray, who was co-leader in the work. In it they transplanted tissue from the spinal cord of embryonic kittens to the severed spinal cord of a kitten. The transplanted tissue fills in the gap in the cord and the kitten is able to walk again - although not as well as an uninjured animal.
In addition to his mother, Dr. Goldberger is survived by a brother, Paul Fenichel.
A memorial service is being planned.
GOLDBERGER, MICHAEL E, of Phla., on Jan 15, 1992, following lengthy illness; survived by his mother, Lillian Rosen and brother, Paul Fenichet. Friends and students are invited to a Memorial Service Fri., 5 PM, Jan 24, 1991, in Kaiser Auditorium at Medical Cottage of Pa., 3300 Henry Ave. Contributions may be made to the Michael Goidberger Scholarship Fund, c/o Medical College of Pa., Dept. of Anatomy and Neurobiology, 3200 Henry Ave., Phila, Pa. 19129. 
Michael Goldberger, a wonderful dancer with a great smile and attitude. In October 1988, Michael joined the very first class of the not yet formed Independence Squares. He was part of what we refer to as class 1A (1B started in January 1989 while the first group was still working on the Basic 50/Mainstream list) and helped to angel the second group that was only a couple of months behind him. He was generous with both his time, his energy, and his smile.
Michael was a good example of the square dance community: you are so focused on dancing that you may not know for years if the person you are dancing with is a banker, teacher, janitor, nurse or a doctor in the world outside of square dancing as none of this matters on the dance floor. Michael was not only a square dancer; he was an internationally known expert on spinal cord injuries with multiple publications and has awards named after him for his work in that field. He was active in the civil rights marches and protests of the late 1950s and early 1960s. He was a protestor against the Vietnam War and took part in early gay rights activities. He was all these things and so much more.
Michael put his energy into things that were important to him, both personally and to the community. The energy and fun he brought to the dance floor are what we knew best about him and is what we are celebrating here.
— Michael Rutkowski and Tim Harper with contributions from members of Independence Squares
- The Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, PA) Friday, 17 Jan 1992, p.16C
- The Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, PA) Saturday, 18 Jan 1992, p.4B
- Email, 09 Aug 2020