His television work and tireless service to Harvard Medical School bear (and bare) the soul of Neal Baer, EdM ’79, AM ’82, MD ’96 (Class of 1995), as a stickler for detail and a champion of the marginalized in his roles as a writer, executive producer, pediatrician, and benefactor of his time and influence—sometimes all at once.
“I was surprised to learn I’d be receiving the Distinguished Service Award. I thought I was going to have a conversation with the dean about ways to increase alumni participation at HMS,” Baer said of his reaction upon receiving the news. “Talk about a switcheroo!”
Baer is being recognized for his staunch advocacy and support of HMS’s LGBTQ+ community and anti-racism initiatives; his invaluable service as co-director of both the Master of Science in Media, Medicine, and Health program and the Media and Medicine certificate program; and his enthusiastic participation on various leadership boards and volunteer committees to help further the School’s mission and advance alumni engagement and philanthropy.
Baer’s journey to becoming a role model for alumni involvement at HMS began with the contacts he made as a student and continued after his graduation. He’s been a Class Agent for 1995 and 1996, keeping in touch with many classmates. He served as an elected member of Harvard University’s alumni board and currently serves on the Board of Fellows and the Advisory Council on Education (ACE) at Harvard Medical School, providing counsel to the dean, the dean for medical education, and other faculty.
As the co-director of the Master of Science in Media, Medicine, and Health program, Baer provides students with evidence-based, multidisciplinary storytelling skills in an arts-driven curriculum focusing on novel public health interventions. As co-director of the Media and Medicine certificate program, he supports those interested in using storytelling to advance health. He also is a lecturer for the Department of Global Health and Social Medicine at HMS.
In addition, Baer is a member of the HMS ’95 Anti-Racism Task Force, which was formed in 2020 by a group of alumni to support mentorship, scholarly activity, education, and outreach on implicit bias and anti-racism issues. He’s also been active on committees to advance the engagement and philanthropy of HMS alumni and friends, serving as a host for regional events, the Campaign Steering Committee, and his 15th, 20th, and 25th Reunion Committees (for both the Class of 1995 and the Class of 1996).
Baer, who came out as gay in 2013, calls his activities supporting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer students “deeply rewarding.” He was formerly married to Gerrie Smith, with whom he had their son, Caleb, a recent graduate of Williams College.
“I wasn’t out in medical school; only two people were. I’m thrilled the number is something like 20% of the class (of 2025) identifying as LGBTQ+,” Baer says.
“Helping to make HMS welcoming to all students is of primary importance to me. I’ve also found being on the Board of Fellows and the ACE committee a wonderful way for me to stay engaged with the medical school. I feel honored to have the opportunity to discuss current HMS challenges and victories with George Daley and (Dean for Medical Education) Ed Hundert (MD ’84).”
He’s particularly pleased with the efforts of Daley and others to make HMS debt free for those who qualify.
Born in 1955 in Denver, Baer graduated from Cherry Creek High School in 1973 and graduated magna cum laude in political science from Colorado College in 1978. After completing masters’ degrees in education and sociology at Harvard, and after receiving his medical degree, Baer completed his internship in pediatrics at Children’s Hospital, Los Angeles. He credits HMS for helping him to balance his medical internship with working in television, managing breaks in filming with his residency at the Los Angeles Children’s Hospital.
His career combination of media and medicine began with a serendipitous meeting when he was a Harvard graduate student in sociology in the early 1980s.
“By chance, at a party of graduate students, I met a documentary filmmaker from Boston named Bestor Cram,” Baer recalls. “He told me that there was a visiting professor from MIT named Ed Pincus who was coming to teach a one-year course in documentary filmmaking at Harvard.”
Even though Baer was a grad student and the course was limited to undergraduates, the professor could see Baer’s passion and worked to allow Baer to take the course.
That led to his being the first physician hired as a writer on a medical drama, the long-running NBC series “ER”; a George Foster Peabody Award and multiple Emmy nominations for writing; and later stints as showrunner for “Law & Order: SVU” and more awards and nominations, and the third season of “Designated Survivor.” His other medically-related shows include “Under the Dome” and “A Gifted Man.”
“Harvard changed my life in many ways—being a doctor, being a health advocate, being a filmmaker. I got the skills from Harvard and being there and having that opportunity—all because of that party I went to.”