by Craig Klugman, PhD
Kathleen (Kathy) Ellen Powderly was a medical educator, clinical ethicist, medical historian, nurse-midwife, avid knitter, cat mom to Casey, mentor, and friend. She was an Associate Professor and Director of the John Conley Division of Medical Ethics and Humanities at SUNY Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn, where she began working in 1989. She held cross appointments in the College of Medicine and the College of Nursing as well as serving as clinical ethics consultant at University Hospital of Brooklyn and Kings County Hospital Center. She was Vice-Chair of the NYC Health & Hospitals Corporation Ethics Committee and a senator in the SUNY University Faculty Senate. Kathy was a Fellow of the NY Academy of Medicine, a Fellow of the Hastings Center, and a faculty affiliate at Columbia University’s School of Professional Studies. She also coordinated courses in the Downstate-Brooklyn College BA-M.D. program.
Kathy earned her Bachelor’s of Science in Nursing at Niagara College, her Master’s of Science in Nurse Midwifery at Yale University, and both her M. Phil and Ph.D. in sociomedical sciences at Columbia University. She wrote her doctoral dissertation in medical history in “Gynecological care of women in Brooklyn, 1863-1900: The work of Alexander J. C. Skene, M.D., LL.D.” under the guidance of David Rothman, Ronald Bayer, Elizabeth Blackmar, Allan Rosefield, and David Rosner.
During her career, Kathy served in several officer positions of the Ethics SPIG (Section) of the American Public Health Association and had served on the nominations committee, CECA, and Medical History affinity group of the American Society for Bioethics & Humanities. She also served on the board of directors for the Association of Bioethics Program Directors.
Among her many grants and projects, the one she was most proud of was directing her “John Conley Scholars”, a hand selected group of extraordinary medical and graduate students whom she supported in ethics, humanities and professionalism education. They often have presented at ASBH Meetings and were student leaders at SUNY Downstate. She also conducted interviews of first responders after 9-11, capturing their heroic actions and subsequent health challenges.
Although she was an accomplished practitioner and scholar, Kathy was most known for her vibrant laugh, her knitting, love of the Mets, devotion to her nieces, and for being the last person in the bar at any academic meeting. The consummate storyteller, Kathy was always willing to offer advice, lend an ear, and share her many, many tales.
I met Kathy in 1997 at the first ASBH Meeting, held in Houston. I was a graduate student and was trying to meet social science scholars working in bioethics. She immediately took me under her wing and has supported me through the many twists and turns of my academic career and personal life. In the decades since, she has been a trusted adviser, mentor, knitting tutor, and friend. There were many nights that she kept me up late at a meeting to enjoy just one more beer and talk about our day. I worked with Kathy to organize five Bioethics Summer Retreats, was part of her table top disaster response exercises for the Borough of Brooklyn, and was a frequent guest lecturer for her classes in the medical school, graduate school and at Brooklyn College. A notorious night owl, Kathy and I would regularly speak in the middle of the night, when she would ring me at 2 or 3am Eastern time. During the pandemic, she and I spoke almost daily, being there for one another during lockdown and work from home, often complaining about Casey scratching her favorite chair. Many of us in bioethics are indebted to her unceasing support of the field and of our personal growth and development. Rarely one for the limelight, there are few in bioethics and health humanities who were not impacted by her generosity, wit, and fierce intellect.