On a recent night, Scullers Jazz Club in Cambridge was packed with nationally renowned experts on trauma and child abuse, former Peace Corps volunteers in West Africa, and book group buddies. They were all there to honor Dr. Eli Newberger, who sat in perhaps his favorite spot on earth: on stage, cradling his beloved tuba.
Newberger, who is both a nationally renowned child abuse expert and a fixture on Boston’s music scene, was turning 75 on Dec. 26. Scullers had to add a 10 p.m. show, after an earlier session, to accommodate fans of his medicine and his music.
“This is a birthday party of music,” he told the enthusiastic crowd before his group, Eli & the Hot Six, launched into an all-Gershwin gig. As he kicked off “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” he told the crowd: “The amygdala in the brain is the center for our cessation of stress. It sets off a cascade of hormones and messages. This is also where music enters our brain.”
His own life has been about the interconnections of music and medicine. “The joy and release of this musical life has enabled me to deal with the rigors of child abuse and family violence: My medical life connects to the sense of shared struggle and social protest that runs deep in the history and practice of jazz,” he once wrote.
In Boston, he may be best known as the key prosecution witness in the trial of Louise Woodward, the British nanny who was convicted of murder in the death of 9-month-old Matthew Eappen in 1997. During the 17-day trial, which was televised live worldwide, Newberger testified that Matthew was the victim of violent, prolonged shaking and that a blood clot on his brain and a fractured skull indicated that he had also been slammed against a hard surface. As medical director of the child abuse unit at Children’s Hospital, Newberger had examined Matthew when he was brought in.
Woodward was convicted of second-degree murder and faced life in prison when Judge Hiller Zobel reduced the conviction to involuntary manslaughter and sentenced her to time already served since her arrest: 279 days.
Nearly 20 years later, it still rankles Newberger. He bristles at the growing legal challenges to shaken baby syndrome; in the past 15 months, the Massachusetts Medical Examiner’s office has revised its initial finding of the syndrome in three different cases involving dead babies with head trauma.
During the priest sex abuse crisis in the Archdiocese of Boston, Newberger also served as the expert on the effects of such abuse on children and their families.
Newberger has been recognized for his music, with hundreds of concert and festival appearances across the US and Europe since he co-founded the New Black Eagle Jazz Band in 1970. He’s been a trustee of the Berklee College of Music and an overseer of the New England Conservatory of Music.
Music was his first love. When he was 10 years old, growing up in Mount Vernon, N.Y., the director of the elementary school band asked Newberger if he’d like to play the tuba. “He always had an eye out for the very sturdy boy who could carry the sousaphone in the marching band,” says Newberger, who is 6-foot-1 and weighs 205 pounds.
At 13, he saw Louis Armstrong perform, and that did it: “I knew after that, I had to play that music.” He led his high school jazz band for four years, while taking private lessons from William Bell, the principal tuba player for the New York Philharmonic. At Juilliard, he studied piano, organ and theory. At Yale, he majored in music theory and became tubist for the New Haven Symphony.
But he was taking pre-med classes “on the side” and decided to go on to medical school at Yale. As a junior, he was fixed up with a Sarah Lawrence sophomore who played the flute. When he graduated, he and Carolyn Moore were married.
Working as a first grade teacher, she put him through medical school, which was $1,500 a year then. “I finished with $1,200 debt,” he says.
In 1966, during the Vietnam War, male doctors were required to register for the draft. Both the Newbergers opposed the war, and he applied to become a Peace Corps doctor.
In 1967, the couple moved to Upper Volta in West Africa — now Burkina Faso — with their month-old daughter. He’d put in for a West African post in hopes of learning more about the origins of jazz. But it ended up having another long-lasting effect as well: His medical experience there led him to change his focus from neurology to pediatrics.
In 1970, while a pediatric resident at Children’s, he alerted the physician-in-chief about “a worrying pattern of rehospitalizations” of young patients who had been reported to child protection. He was asked to research what hospitals around the country were doing about such cases.
Mandated reporting laws, which require healthcare workers, teachers, and others to report suspected child abuse to protective services, were new, and the hospital staff not yet well trained on such abuse.
“And there was next to no [medical] literature on it,” says Newberger.He found that most of the real expertise on child abuse in Massachusetts was in the nonprofit sector that dealt with children and families.
Newberger was asked to start a child abuse unit at Children’s Hospital. He was 29 years old, with no experience in the field. But his multi-disciplinary team of doctors, nurses, and social workers would become a national blueprint for other hospitals.
During his residency, he got a degree in epidemiology at Harvard’s School of Public Health, while Carolyn worked on her doctorate in developmental psychology at Harvard. They collaborated for 30 years at Children’s, where she served as director of research and training in the Family Development Program.
Today, they are retired from the health care field but still work together on stage, as members of Eli & the Hot Six. Carolyn plays the washboard, which she straps around her neck.
She beamed as she improvised with band members at the Scullers shows. “For me, it’s about getting to the heart and soul of rhythm,” she said later.
But her real second career is art. In the couple’s rambling Brookline home, her studio is filled with her paintings and charcoal sketches, as are the walls of the house. She often sketches the band as it plays.
The couple, who also have a home in the Berkshires, are now collaborating in a third way. He writes music reviews for on online site The Berkshire Edge, and she illustrates them.
On a recent day, he picked up a tuba in his living room and started playing. He adores the tuba, but knows that not everyone loves the sound of the ungainly 40-pound horn.
The Newberger dogs, Bibi and Cici, began to bark. Newberger moved over to his Steinway and started to play “How Much Is That Doggie in the Window?” The dogs relaxed.