Photo Caption: Michael Grodin (left) and George Annas at Nuremberg for the 50th anniversary of the Doctors’ Trial, 1996.
A most horrific Mexican saying (as I’ve heard it) is said to be “May your life be filled with lawyers.” Physician Michael Grodin, aka “Dr. G,” who died peacefully on March 1, surrounded by family, lived his professional life surrounded by lawyers, but for him and his legal colleagues the relationship was a blessing. Michael joined the Department of Health Law, Bioethics and Human Rights (in the Boston University School of Public Health) as its only nonlawyer almost 40 years ago. We were not looking for a physician, but he convinced us we should have been. He was living proof that advocacy can be more effective if physicians and lawyers work together rather than separately. The lawyers he worked most closely with, in addition to me, were Leonard Glantz and Wendy Mariner.
Like many physicians who became known for their work in bioethics, Michael moved from working fulltime in a clinical specialty (pediatric cardiology) to spending more and more time on what we can call “bioethics” work. In his case he early on became chair of the IRB (at Boston City Hospital) and later being a clinical ethicist as well as chair of the hospital’s ethics committee. The core of his life’s work, however, was to combine bioethics with human rights and expand the field of “health and human rights” to reach a wider and more diverse audience than either could reach alone. For more than 25 years, for example, Dr. G and I co-taught a course on “Health and Human Rights” in the School of Public Health, and with Jonathan Mann, Daniel Tarantola, and Sofia Gruskin, produced a series of 3 textbooks on that subject. A fourth is in process, but without Dr. G’s energy to guide the project, it may not see completion.
Given his expertise in research ethics, and his work on medicine and the holocaust, Michael naturally gravitated to explore the Doctors’ Trial after World War II, and the Nuremberg Code produced by the American Judges at Nuremberg. It was a continuing project that I was privileged to work on with Michael for decades, and one which led to a series of conferences, a book (The Nazi Doctors and the Nuremberg Code) and the model of doctors and lawyers working together at Nuremberg to try the Nazi doctors led us to form an NGO (Global Lawyers and Physicians) created at the 1996 US Holocaust Museum Nuremberg conference to encourage doctors and lawyers to work together on human rights. Leaders of the Holocaust Memorial Museum created a “special citation” for him in recognition of his “profound contributions—through original and creative research—to the cause of Holocaust education and remembrance.” He worked with lawyers when he testified in court not only in asylum cases, but also in cases involving human experimentation and informed consent. His legislative testimony was primarily on living wills, health care proxies, informed consent, and parental authority to make healthcare decisions for children.
This work also led to advocacy against the proposed use of experimental drugs and vaccines in the first Gulf War, and to advocacy against the use of torture at the black sites post 9/11, including advocacy against force-feeding hunger strikers at Guantanamo (continued by Dr. Sondra Crosby).
In all this work we had the strong support of colleagues like Jay Katz, Robert Drinan, and Elie Wiesel. Michael also taught courses at the Elie Wiesel Center for Judaic Studies where he was also a Professor of Jewish Studies, with a concentration on medicine and the holocaust. In later life he became much more interested in the actions of Jewish doctors than of Nazi doctors, and what they had to teach us about survival in the most extreme circumstances. Michael would also add that he was the descendant of four generations of Rabbis and Jewish Educators, and sometimes add that his were the only Jewish parents he knew who were disappointed that their son became a physician rather than a Rabbi.
Early on Michael developed a clinical specialty of caring for victims of torture, and in this role co-founded the Boston Center for Refugee Health and Human Rights in 1996. One of the activities he enjoyed most was caring for Tibetan monks who had been tortured and driven out of their country. He was fond of telling them (and anyone else who would listen) that his treatment worked not just for suffering endured in this lifetime, “but for all the pain you suffered in your previous lives as well.” To better care for his patients he did unusual advanced training for psychiatrists, including in Tai Chi, acupuncture, and traditional Chinese medicine. He not only taught compassion for his patients, he lived it as well.
He was responsible for teaching medical ethics at the Boston University Medical School (now the Chobanian and Avedisian School of Medicine) where he was a professor of psychiatry and family medicine) for more than 25 years, and for most of this time in charge of a block called “Essentials of Public Health” in which he made sure health law was included as an essential course for the medical students. For more than 30 years as well we taught an annual seminar on “Art, Literature, and Medicine” (later called “Health and Humanities”) primarily for students in the medical school and the school of public health. Michael was uniquely able to identify with the struggles of medical students, and to pick a rotating series of short stories and poems that could provoke stimulating discussion of the roles of caretaker and patient. He was beloved by his students and his patients alike.
Born and raised in California, Michael moved to the East Coast to attend MIT and the Albert Einstein College of Medicine. He met and married Nancy when he was a medical student. They had two children (Joshua and Leah) and five grandchildren. His “official” obituary concludes with words I find fitting for this one as well:
“Michael lived his life in service of others and his legacy will live on in his medical and humanitarian work, through the work of the countless students and colleagues who were inspired by him, and with his much-loved family.”
Michael Alan Grodin, MD
1951 – 2023
George J. Annas, JD, MPH, is the William Fairfield Warren Distinguished Professor at Boston University.