Berttina Wentworth Helmers

Berttina W. Helmers was born Blanche Berttina Brown on August 9, 1919, in Frankfort, Illinois, the daughter of William Labry and Blanche Dade Brown. Her father was an officer in the U.S. Army Air Corps, stationed at the Frankfort base. The family returned to their home in Henderson, Kentucky, six weeks after her birth, and lived there and in Evansville, Indiana during her childhood.

Berttina graduated from Central High School in Evansville and went to the University of Kentucky in Lexington, where she obtained two Bachelor’s degrees – one in Bacteriology and the other in Medical Technology. After her work in hospital laboratories, she accepted a position in the Ohio Department of Health Laboratory in Columbus, Ohio.  While living in Columbus, she obtained a Master’s degree from Ohio State University. She was married to Dr. Frederick Wentworth, Chief of Infectious Diseases in the Health Department, who predeceased her.

Berttina joined her family in southern California, where she obtained her doctoral degree in microbiology at U.C.L.A.

As Dr. Wentworth, she applied for and was granted a fellowship for study overseas, thus sailing to Australia to research the genetics of poliovirus at the Australian National University in Canberra. She toured the larger cities of eastern Australia, found the people friendly and hospitable, and thoroughly enjoyed her stay in that country.

She stayed for two years, and when her Visa expired, returned home to a position as an Assistant Professor in the Washington School of Public Health in Seattle. Here she joined a team studying infectious diseases of the newborn. Although she loved Seattle and her work there, no women were granted tenure and, therefore, had no security. Her friends persuaded her to move to a more secure civil service position in the Michigan Department of Health.

The first winter in Michigan was a shock, but she learned to love the state and continued to work for the Health Department until she retired.  While there she directed the clinical diagnostic programs and found time for research activities, publishing 71 scientific papers on the diagnosis and epidemiology of such things as Legionnaires Disease and Chlamydia infections. She taught graduate students at Michigan State University as an Adjunct Professor.

Berttina was active in professional associations; was president of the Michigan Public Health Association, and while chairperson of the Publications Board of the American Public Health Association, edited five books on laboratory procedures.

Berttina received several awards including Outstanding Laboratorian and the APHA Executive Director’s Citation.

In 1977, she married Earl L. Helmers, a design engineer for Ford Motor Company and they made their home in East Lansing.  The couple were active in Grace Lutheran Church.  She served for eight years as Vice President of the North/West Lower Michigan Synod, and served on the synod Church in Society Committee until her last illness.

The Helmers both retired in 1988 and began to travel, visiting 47 states in their RV, toured Hawaii and the Canary Islands by ship, and the Danube and the Volga Rivers by riverboat. Mr. Helmers died peacefully in Hospice of Lansing on October 30, 2005 from a chronic malignancy.

Funeral services for Berttina W. Helmers will be held at 3:00 p.m. Friday, January 24, 2014, at Grace Lutheran Church, 528 N. Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd., Lansing with the Rev. Dan R. Johnson, presiding. The family will receive friends beginning at 2:00 p.m. on Friday at the church. In lieu of flowers, memorial contributions may be made to Michigan State University Dept. of Microbiology and Molecular Genetics.

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Mark and Pamela Meadows
January 24, 2014 at 3:18 pm

Berttina (and Earl) were the best of a long line of terrific neighbors that we have had. She was a great friend and supporter in all of Mark’s political races and she was very tolerant of neighbors who had four kids and the loudest dog on the block. She remained a great friend even after we moved from the house on Hitching Post after the kids were grown. We are very sorry that we could not attend the service today but Berttina and Earl will always live in our memories.


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