Of all periodical literature, the obituary may boast of the most potential to simultaneously inform and uplift. Before I read this obit for Dr. Edmund Daniel Pellegrino I knew a little more than nothing about him; and now I feel a swell of warmth and excitement, not untouched by regret, about the possibility of learning something about this remarkable man.
Pellegrino was born on June 22, 1920 in Brooklyn. He attended Xavier High School in Manhattan, received an undergraduate degree from St. John’s University, and a medical degree from New York University. He interned at the famed Bellevue Hospital and, after a brief stint at a tuberculosis hospital, returned to Bellevue and NYU, specializing in internal medicine and the physiology of calcium in the kidney. Thereafter, he embarked on a career in academic medicine that would take most people several lifetimes to accomplish. He launched the primary care program at the hospital in Hunterdon, New Jersey, and before he was 40 became the first chairman of the department of medicine at the University of Kentucky. He was the first dean of Stony Brook University Medical School, chancellor for health sciences at the University of Tennessee, president of the Yale-New Haven Medical Center, president of the Catholic University of America, director of the Kennedy Institute of Ethics at Georgetown, and founder of Georgetown’s Center for Clinical Bioethics, which was recently named in his honor. He received fifty-four honorary doctorates and numerous prestigious awards from medical associations and bioethics institutes. He was a member of the Institute of Medicine and a Master of the American College of Physicians.
Pellegrino began writing on the subject of medical ethics in the late 1950s, well before the word “bioethics” was coined. In 1969, he helped to found the world’s first formal bioethics society, the Society for Health and Human Values (precursor to the current American Society for Bioethics and Humanities), and served as its second president. He was founding editor of the Journal of Medicine and Philosophy and a regular contributor on ethics for the Journal of the American Medical Association. He served as chairman of the President’s Council on Bioethics during the second term of President George W. Bush, and as a U.S. representative to UNESCO for the development of its Universal Declaration on Bioethics and Human Rights.
An accomplished scientist and consummate clinician, Pellegrino still ran a lab while president of Catholic University and saw patients into his 90s. He was a scholar and teacher of extraordinary talent. His writings — twenty-three authored or edited books and over six hundred scholarly articles — were prolific and influential. He was a tireless lecturer of immense enthusiasm and a generous mentor to physicians, graduate students, and anyone who came to his office seeking advice and counsel.
He was also a deeply committed Catholic — Jesuit-educated, Thomistic in his philosophical temperament, active in an Archdiocesan program providing free care to the indigent of Washington, an advisor to bishops and to the Vatican.
America has obviously lost one of her greatest physicians. That I am not familiar with his work is a strike against my learning, but clearly not against Dr. Pellegrino’s stature.
Pellegrino also became a great champion of the role of virtue ethics in medicine, both in his writings and in a popular lecture on the topic over a succession of annual Intensive Bioethics Courses at the Kennedy Institute of Ethics. His teleological approach to medicine easily accommodated a virtue-ethics view. For Pellegrino, virtues such as competence, compassion, fidelity, integrity, respect, phronesis (prudence, or a practical wisdom), and self-effacement characterized the good physician; these virtues expressed excellence in achieving the healing ends of medicine. Moreover, anyone who knew Pellegrino also recognized how much he himself exemplified these virtues and served as a true role model of the good physician.
He was fully convinced that the healing mission of medicine precluded abortion, euthanasia, and physician-assisted suicide. Hewing to a consistent “seamless garment” approach to these issues, he just as vigorously opposed physician participation in capital punishment and advocated broader access to health care for all.
Virtue ethics is very interesting because according to its understanding, virtue expresses excellence in real human life. Now “real human life” clearly implies reference to circumstances and instances that are unique and unrepeatable. The education in virtue that life as a poor man’s son impresses is rather different in detail from the impress of life as a rich man’s son. Thus virtue always expresses its excellence under pressure from particular conditions.
In recent years a Catholic scholar at Marquette has persuasively located Adam Smith at the origin of virtue ethics. Smith’s hierarchy of virtue electrifies. The Scotsman was almost a mediaeval virtue ethicist. Catholics and admirers of Adam Smith will wrestle with this slim volume for many years. I’ve spent the last three months wrestling with it, and probably have many months to go. I also heard the author speak here.
These ramblings aside, my main purpose here is to encourage. Though the profession of medicine is oppressed, perhaps unto death, by love of death; though the imperious sanctimony of the inquisitors of the culture of death is no more evidence that in bureaucratized medicine; still we can be heartened to know that modern American medicine has produced such men as this.
RIP Dr. Edmund Daniel Pellegrino