Ernst William Bertner, physician and hospital administrator, son of Gustave and Anna (Miller) Bertner, was born at Colorado City, Texas, on August 18, 1889, to a German immigrant family. He graduated from the New Mexico Military Institute in Roswell in 1906 and returned to Colorado City, where, with his father's assistance, he opened a drugstore. After a year as a businessman Bertner left Colorado City for Galveston to enroll in the University of Texas School of Pharmacy. Once there, he decided to study medicine rather than pharmacy, and in 1911 he received his medical degree from the University of Texas Medical Branch. He then traveled to New York City, where he served as an intern and resident at Willard Parker Hospital, Saint Vincent's Hospital, and Manhattan Maternity Hospital. Among the many patients he saw in New York was Jesse H. Jones, a prominent Texas businessman and future New Deal government official. Jones offered Bertner a position as house physician in his new multimillion-dollar Rice Hotel in Houston and encouraged the young doctor to open his practice in the Bayou City. Bertner moved into the Rice Hotel in 1913 and lived there most of the rest of his life.
He practiced medicine in Houston until 1917, when he became one of the first physicians in the city to volunteer for military service. He served as a lieutenant with the British Army Medical Corps in Europe until 1918 and then transferred to the American Expeditionary Force. He was discharged with the rank of major in 1919. During World War II he commanded the Harris County Emergency Medical Service of the Office of Civilian Defense and received a presidential citation for his service. After his discharge he practiced medicine in Houston until 1921, when he moved to Baltimore, Maryland, for a year of postgraduate study in surgery, gynecology, and urology at Johns Hopkins University. Bertner's interest in the treatment of cancer began at Johns Hopkins, where he studied with Dr. Thomas Cullen, an authority on gynecologic cancer. In 1922 Bertner returned to private practice in Houston. He built a successful practice and in 1935 became chief of staff at Hermann Hospital, a position he also held at Jefferson Davis Hospital. He served on the surgical staffs of Memorial Hospital and Southern Pacific Hospital. During the 1930s he became increasingly influential in state and local medicine. He was elected president of the Texas Association of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, the Harris County Medical Society, the Texas Surgical Society, the Postgraduate Medical Assembly of South Texas, and the Texas Medical Association.
In 1942 negotiations between the M. D. Anderson Foundation and the University of Texas brought the M. D. Anderson Hospital for Cancer Research to Houston; the university regents appointed Bertner acting director of the hospital until a permanent director could be found. He served for four years and donated his salary to the new hospital. Perhaps more than anyone else, Bertner saw M. D. Anderson Hospital as the first step toward the development of a major medical center in Houston. The center Bertner envisioned needed broad-based support; to that end the trustees of the Anderson Foundation established the Texas Medical Center in 1946 and deeded the property in the center to the new corporation. Bertner served as the first president. After the regents of the University of Texas appointed Dr. R. Lee Clark director and surgeon-in-chief at M. D. Anderson Hospital later that year, Bertner devoted himself to planning and developing the medical center, which moved ahead rapidly. By 1948 M. D. Anderson Hospital was well established, Baylor University College of Medicine had moved into its new home in the medical center, and Hermann Hospital, Methodist Hospital, and the Shriners Hospital for Crippled Children were under construction.
Bertner served as a member of the executive committees of the Central Association of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the Texas Social Hygiene Association. He was state counselor and fellow of the American College of Surgeons, vice president of the American Cancer Society, and chairman of the executive committee of the society's Texas division. In 1949 the society presented Bertner its award for distinguished service in cancer research. He was a fellow of the American Medical Association and a member in 1944 of its House of Delegates. He served as vice president of the Southern Medical Association and was a member of the Texas Railway and Traumatic Surgical Association, the American Urological Association, the American Gynecological Association, and the Interurban Gynecological Society. He was professor and chairman of the Department of Gynecology at Baylor College of Medicine and also served as lecturer in gynecology and oncology at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston. He was vice chairman of the Houston Board of Health, a member of the Houston Chamber of Commerce, and a member of the national Citizens Committee for the Hoover Report. He was a Presbyterian and a Mason, a Knight Templar, a Shriner, and a knight commander of the court of honor of the Scottish Rite. His distinguished career brought him many honors. In Bertner's name the Houston Endowment gave Jesse H. Jones fellowships totaling $25,000 to M. D. Anderson Hospital. A building at the Ochsner Institute in New Orleans, Louisiana, was named for Bertner, and a street in the Texas Medical Center carries his name. In June 1950 Baylor University awarded him an honorary doctor of laws degree.
Bertner married Julia Williams of St. Louis, Missouri, on November 20, 1922. They had no children. Although Bertner spent much of his professional life in a struggle against cancer, he himself succumbed to the disease in Houston on July 18, 1950.