Bioethics Blogs

How I Learned Bioethics in Medical School

The director of the medical intensive care unit did not like the idea of having a bioethicist around. But she agreed to the request, and there he was on rounds, most mornings for several months. The year was 1986.

I was an intern at the time and my four-week medical intensive care unit rotation at Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center overlapped with part of the bioethicist’s research. In reality, Robert Zussman was not a bioethicist but a sociologist who, like so many other scholars during the 1980s, had become fascinated with the new discipline of bioethics and how decisions were made in the clinical setting.

I had the occasion to revisit these events as I researched my new book, The Good Doctor: A Father, a Son and the Evolution of Medical Ethics, which examines and contrasts the medical career of my father, an infectious diseases physician who firmly believed in paternalism, with my own, which took place in an era dominated by informed consent and patient autonomy. The problems that Zussman examined–how aggressive to be with gravely ill patients and who should decide–persist today.

As a first-year medical student at the Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons in 1982 and 1983, I spent a lot of time at the Center for the Study of Society and Medicine, run by Bernard Schoenberg Professor of Social Medicine David J. Rothman, a historian from Columbia University who had just been recruited to the medical center. I first met Zussman at the center, where he was based during his time at Physicians and Surgeons.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.