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A life of medicine: Dr. Leonard Bristol

December 2, 2009
By DIANE?CHASE, Special to the Enterprise

Born in New York City in April of 1919, Leonard Bristol doesn't remember a time when he did not want to be a physician. Attending the pre-med program at New York University, he completed his Doctorate of Medicine in 1944 at Long Island College of Medicine, now known as SUNY Downstate College of Medicine. Downstate College of Medicine is touted as revolutionizing medical education in the United States for being the first medical school founded with a hospital that made bedside training an essential part of the student's education. Now that philosophy is standard in medical schools.

After medical school he remained in the greater metropolitan area and completed his internship and residency. "I always wanted to be a doctor, but I didn't start out in the field of radiology. A friend encouraged me to try it and I liked it." The radiologist is considered a physician's doctor as physicians come to a radiologist for diagnostic advice. Doctors refer their patients to the radiologist for further evaluation. "People would come to me for a second opinion," he says, "and sometimes I was the first opinion."

"I was licensed to practice medicine in the state of New York in 1949. Tremendous changes have happened in radiology since that time. When I began my career we didn't have computer tomography, MRIs, nuclear medicine or ultrasound. All of these developed with advancing technology. Back in the 40s, 50s and even 60s, there was radiation therapy and general radiology. We primarily used x-ray technology to diagnose.

Article Photos

Dr. Leonard Bristol reflects on keeping up to date with changes in the medical field.
(Photo —Diane Chase)

Dr. Bristol thumbs through a glossy medical journal he is reading. Though retired for 20 years, he is still interested in keeping up to date with burgeoning techniques and processes in radiology. With a smile he says, "Yes, this is my light reading. This is part of my life. I like to know what is going on."

"Following my internship and residency in radiology I enlisted in the Navy. When WWII started, the Navy sent me to the National Naval Center in Bethesda, Md., where I was stationed for two years. From there I accepted a full-time fellowship in radiology at Johns Hopkins University Medical School in Baltimore."

The radiologist in chief, Dr. Russell Morgan, was very interested in pulmonary diseases, especially occupational ones like those affecting iron ore and asbestos workers and coal miners. Morgan encouraged me to travel to Saranac Lake to work with the physicians and scientists at Trudeau Institute since one of the fortes of Trudeau was occupational diseases of the lung.

In particular, they were studying pneumoconiosis, a lung disease caused by the inhalation of dust from foreign elements. I knew very little about occupational diseases; however, Dr. Leroy Gardner, whose work at Trudeau I had heard about, had done a tremendous amount of work in that field. Arthur Vorwald was continuing with it. So I decided to give it a try." What had originally been thought to be a temporary move became a 30-year career with Trudeau, during which time pneumoconiosis became the focus of his career.

A year after his move to Saranac Lake, Dr. Bristol was joined by his wife, Virginia, and two young children. In addition to his work at Trudeau, he practiced at the General Hospital in Saranac Lake, and later when it became the Adirondack Medical Center. He also worked at Will Rogers Memorial Hospital, Placid Memorial Hospital, Alice Hyde Memorial Hospital in Malone, Community Hospital in Elizabethtown and the U.S. Air Force Hospital in Plattsburgh.

"I testified in many, many cases all around the country regarding these occupational diseases. Very few radiologists were studying these diseases, and my interest in this area led me to work with physicians and scientists from all over the U.S. as well as the world. There was very little knowledge at that time about these diseases. The work was ground breaking, a mystery then, that is pretty well solved now. There are still cases of pneumoconiosis. The degree of incidence depends on whether or not manufacturing stops using certain materials in industrial production."

In 1964, at the same time that the International Congress on the Biological Affects of Asbestos was renewing interest in asbestos dust health hazards, Dr. Bristol was working alongside Dr. Eugene Pendergrass of the University of Pennsylvania, Dr. George Jacobson of the University of Southern California, and Dr. Benjamin Felson of the University of Cincinnati, developing a classification system for chest radiographs of individuals working in the asbestos industry in the U.S. A third group from Canada had formed because of a need to classify several thousand radiographs from the asbestos mines in Quebec. These three groups met in Cincinnati in 1967 and developed the International Union Against Cancer/Cincinnati System.

"The four of us worked very diligently together developing a radiological classification for these pneumoconiosis diseases," he admits. "I was also a member of the American College of Radiology's Pneumoconiosis Task Force."

At the time, no method had been developed to teach physicians the classification system specific for occupational lung disease, so the Task Force worked on regulations. This program was the first to use view boxes and radiographs to educate, a technique which is now a standard to teach other forms of radiology.

Dr. Bristol was a member of the American Medical Association, New York State Medical Society, Franklin County Medical Association of New York, Saranac Lake Medical Society, a diplomat of the American Board of Radiology, a member of the American College of Radiology and a member of the Northeastern New York Radiological Society.

The Bristols have seven children, two of whom still live in Saranac Lake, as well as 12 grandchildren and one great granddaughter. "In those days it wasn't considered a large family to have more than two children," he says. "My children grew up here and enjoyed all the winter and summer sports and activities that make this area unique."

For more than 12 years, he served on the Saranac Lake Voluntary Health Association and was active for 50 years in the Saranac Lake Rotary Club, having both served as president as well as having been the recipient of the Paul Harris Award. He has been a member of the Knights of Columbus, and the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks. "Each organization had its own programs and objectives and each promoted scholarships and youth programs that I was very much involved with."

He has been a member of the Elks since 1950, served on many local and state committees, and in 1968 became president of the New York State Elks Association. In 1978, he was elected as the organization's Grand Exalted Ruler (GER). "The name has since been changed to National President," Dr. Bristol says," but I still go by GER because that was what I've always know the position to be. Both titles are interchangeable. When I became GER we had 1,600,00 members. The year that I was president, I traveled to every state in the union and to Puerto Rico and the Panama Canal Zone promoting the principles of the Elks: charity, justice and brotherly love. I took a year off from my medical practice in order to complete my duty to the Elks. In 2000 Governor George Pataki presented him with a citation for his "civic duty, community service, and a strong sense of responsibility to his fellow New Yorkers." For his years of service the Maine Elks Association named the Dr. Leonard Bristol and Virginia Bristol Award for the state's top male and female scholarship applicants. Recently another scholarship was named in his honor. The Saranac lake Voluntary Health Association awarded a $1,000 scholarship to a North Country Community College Radiological Technology student. "I am humbled to have a scholarship named for me. I don't feel that I did that much. The board of directors were very thoughtful and kind to do that, and it was a surprise to me," he says.

Dr. Bristol also spent sixteen years as a member of the Saranac Lake School Board, 13 years as president. During his tenure, the school district was centralized. "It took several years of hard work by the board to accomplish centralization. Gabriels, Lake Clear, Onchiota, Vermontville and Bloomingdale were just some of the towns that had small schools at that time. By the time the new high school was built, I felt it was time to move on."

His years of volunteerism and service show his strong support for education, scholarship and the Saranac Lake community. "I don't know how to get the younger generation involved in volunteering. I think it should begin at an early age. I'm not sure what I did to get my children involved," Dr. Bristol smiles. "I'll have to ask them. It comes back to the parents, I think. I never taught my children to volunteer. They just do." He pauses for a moment and quietly adds, "We have to sometimes think about other people and stop thinking about ourselves."



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