Alan Berkman, physician, member of the Black Liberation Army and “Resistance Conspiracy Six,” convicted criminal, fugitive, prisoner and AIDS activist, was born September 4, 1945 in Brooklyn, the second of four children to father Samuel Berkman, and mother Mona. His family moved to Middletown, New York, where his father owned a plumbing and building supply company. He attended Cornell (BA 1967) and the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Columbia University (MD 1971). He married physician Barbara Zeller and had two daughters, Sarah Machel (b. 1976) and Harriet Josina Clark (b. 1980).
Berkman became radicalized as a medical student at Columbia University. One year after he enrolled in the College of Physicians & Surgeons, the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) famously occupied Columbia’s Morningside Heights campus in protest of the University’s research ties to the Vietnam War and its relations with Harlem residents. Berkman claimed that his experience working with minority populations in poor communities awakened him to the class and racial divides he had been protected from as a white person growing up in Middletown, N.Y. He was also personally affected by hearing Kwame Toure (then Stokely Carmichael) speak about the Vietnam War.
His commitment to fighting oppression – perceived to be perpetrated by the United States government – is shown throughout his life’s work. In 1971, he treated prisoners injured during the Attica Prison riot in New York. In New York City, he interned at the North East Neighborhood Association (NENA) Community Health Center and the Betances Health Center, and was staff physician at Lincoln Hospital in the Bronx. In 1973, he and his future wife, Barbara Zeller, treated injured participants of the American Indian Movement (AIM) during the occupation at Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.
On October 20, 1981, members of the American militant groups, the May 19th Communist Organization, the Black Liberation Army, and the Weather Underground, robbed a Brink’s armored car, stealing $1.6 million, in Nanuet, New York, resulting in the deaths of two police officers and a Brink’s guard. Berkman treated the gunshot wound of one perpetrator, but refused to collaborate with the FBI investigation. In May 1982, he was charged for civil contempt of a federal grand jury. These charges terminated with his arrest in December of that same year for providing medical treatment to a fugitive. He was also charged as an accessory after the fact to bank robbery and murder. He was released on bail but failed to appear in court; he went underground. On September 4, 1984, Berkman and an accomplice participated in the gunpoint robbery of a Connecticut supermarket, stealing $21,480.
Under surveillance by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Berkman and fellow fugitive Elizabeth Ann Duke were arrested in May 1985 outside Doylestown, Pennsylvania, in possession of firearms and a key to a nearby garage containing 100 pounds of dynamite. Berkman went to trail in what is known as the Resistance Conspiracy case involving five additional defendants: Marilyn Jean Buck, Linda Sue Evans, Susan Rosenberg and Timothy Blunk, and Elizabeth Ann Duke; all charged with the 1983 U.S. Senate bombing and other bombings claimed by the clandestine May 19 Communist Organization or M19CO – a splinter group of the Weather Underground, whose members splintered from the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS).
In 1987, Berkman was convicted on felony charges and for skipping bail. He was also convicted in the State of Connecticut for robbery in the first degree. While incarcerated, Berkman was diagnosed with cancer, specifically Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Due to his health problems, Berkman was often in custody of U.S. Marshals’ Service, but served time at the U.S. Medical Center for Federal Prisoners at Springfield, the Federal Medical Center at Rochester, and at United States Prison Marion. He criticized the quality of his health care while in custody, with particular aim at Marion Prison’s carcinogenic water.
Identifying as political prisoners, Berkman and the other Resistance Conspiracy defendants based their political work on anti-imperialist principles.* His wife, Barbara Zeller, advocated on his behalf and other U.S. political prisoners by distributing literature and initiating letter writing campaigns.
On July 2, 1992, he was released from prison on parole. His case was deliberated by the New York State Board for Professional Medical Conduct and signed a consent agreement allowing him to reinstate his medical license. Under the terms of his probation and the reinstatement of his medical license, his medical practice was supervised by another physician, Dr. Harold Osborn. His state license was on probation March 1992-March 1994.
He served as Medical Director for El Rio Treatment Services (1993) and Highbridge-Woodycrest Center (1994), both in the Bronx. He entered the Harlem Hospital Physician Assistant Program (1994) and became a research fellow at Columbia University HIV Center for Clinical and Behavioral Studies (1995). He was appointed Assistant Professor of Clinical Psychiatry (1988). He left Highbridge-Woodycrest Center in 2003 after accepting a full-time faculty position at the Mailman School of Public Health, Columbia University. He was made Assistant Professor of Clinical Epidemiology and Clinical Sociomedical Sciences. His parole ended March 1997.
Outside of his academic appointments, Berkman founded Health Global Access Project (GAP), an AIDS patient advocacy group that lobbied the Clinton administration to require less expensive, generic drug equivalents to be sold by U.S. pharmaceutical companies to foreign countries, resulting in a dramatic reduction in the cost of AIDS medications internationally.
He died on June 5, 2009 in Manhattan, survived by his wife and two children.
Day, Susie. "Political Prisoners: Guilty until Proven Innocent." Sojourner: The Women's Forum, February 1989, 17.
Hevesi, Dennis. "Alan Berkman, 63, Activist Doctor, Dies." The New York Times. 2009. Accessed July 12, 2016. http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/15/nyregion/15berkman.html?_r=0.
Wikipedia. Accessed July 12, 2016. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alan_Berkman#cite_note-NYTObit-1.