Remembering Dan W. Brock (1937-2020)

October 7, 2020

man with light skin and white hair in front of a bookcase

We mourn the passing of our esteemed colleague, Dan W. Brock, Frances Glessner Lee Professor of Medical Ethics, Emeritus, at Harvard Medical School, and here wish to celebrate his significant contributions to our community. Professor Brock was a foundational leader in the field of bioethics whose influence on the field’s most significant issues is difficult to overstate. He was a close friend and mentor to many in our community, and his memory holds a special place in our hearts.

Dan Brock was one of the pioneers in the field of bioethics. He was a faculty fellow in the Center in 1991-92, inaugurating a relationship with Harvard that benefited all of us for many years. He returned to Brown before we persuaded him to come to Harvard permanently as a professor and director the Division of Medical Ethics (now the Center for Bioethics). In that capacity he rejuvenated bioethics at Harvard. Dan was a towering figure in bioethics beyond Harvard. His work ranged widely from the moral responsibilities of medical professionals to the ethics of procreation and genetics. His contributions were both intellectually profound and practically relevant. But we knew him as well as an institution builder, teacher, and leader of consummate good judgment and warm personal qualities. We will miss him, and we will always remember the good that he did for the Center and for Harvard as well as for bioethics more generally.  

- Dennis Thompson, Founding Director of the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics and Alfred North Whitehead Professor of Political Philosophy at Harvard University 

Dan Brock, with a small handful of others, founded modern bioethics. He was one of the first to introduce philosophical rigor to clinical and health policy decision making and to establish bioethical inquiry as a field of study in academic philosophy. With analytical precision and clarity, he set the agenda and modeled a style of argumentation both crisp and illuminating.  Dan mentored generations of theorists and clinicians at Brown, the National Institutes of Health, and Harvard with his laser-sharp intellect, generous spirit, and wry humor. He nearly single-handedly created the role of public philosopher in his pivotal service to the President’s Commission for the Study of Ethical Problems in Medicine in the early 1980s, and his writings on the ethics of surrogate decision making, end-of-life care, and the justice of genetics continue to shape our understanding. He fashioned a field and its enduring institutions. Harvard and the world of bioethics have lost one of the greats. 

- Arthur Applbaum, Director of Undergraduate Fellowships at the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics and Adams Professor of Political Leadership and Democratic Values at Harvard Kennedy School 

Dan Brock was one of a small group of philosophers to whom we are greatly indebted for first expanding the range of analytic philosophy to include medical ethics and pushing for medical ethics to include the work of analytic philosophy. He went on to expand work in bioethics more generally to include population level ethical issues, speaking to the work of political philosophers, economists and epidemiologists. As director of the Center for Medical Ethics at Harvard Medical School and head of a university-wide initiative in bioethics at Harvard he helped develop programs at the undergraduate, graduate, and post-graduate level that sent out new generations of philosophically-oriented professionals in bioethics. He “directed” in an admirably egalitarian and humane manner, always aiming for broad agreement among those who worked with him. I am honored to have been one. I count myself very lucky to have known and worked with him. 

- Frances Kamm, Henry Rutgers University Professor of Philosophy, Rutgers University 

Prof. Brock received a BA in economics from Cornell University and a PhD in philosophy from Columbia University. He served as director of Harvard Medical School’s Division of Medical Ethics, now the Center for Bioethics, and was a faculty fellow at the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics (then the Program in Ethics and Professions) in 1991-92. He was a Faculty Associate from 2004-2015. Prof. Brock was president of the American Association of Bioethics in 1995-96 and was a founding board member of the American Society for Bioethics and Humanities. He served as a staff philosopher on the President’s Commission for the Study of Ethical Problems in Medicine from 1981 to 1982 and was a member of the ethics working group of President Bill Clinton’s task force on national health reform in 1993. He was a consultant to numerous international and national bodies, including the Office of Technology Assessment of the U.S. Congress, the Institute of Medicine, and the World Health Organization. 

Prof. Brock authored over 150 articles in bioethics and in moral and political philosophy, which have appeared in books and refereed scholarly journals, including the New England Journal of MedicineJAMAScience, Hastings Center ReportPhilosophy and Public Affairs, and Ethics. He is the author of Deciding For Others: The Ethics of Surrogate Decision Making (with Allen E. Buchanan, 1989), Life and Death: Philosophical Essays in Biomedical Ethics (1993), and From Chance to Choice: Genetics and Justice (with Allen Buchanan, Norman Daniels, and Daniel Wikler, 2000), all published by Cambridge University Press.  

In 2018, Prof. Brock was awarded the Henry Knowles Beecher Award by The Hastings Center for his lifetime contribution to ethics and the life sciences.