In Memoriam: David Rothman


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Tag(s): Legacy post
Topic(s): In Memoriam

by Anil Rustgi, MD and Rita Charon, MD PhD

Dr. David J. Rothman, the Bernard Schoenberg Professor of Social Medicine and Director of the Division of Social Medicine and Professionalism in the Department of Medical Humanities and Ethics at Columbia University, an internationally renowned social and medical historian, died on August 30, 2020, at his home after a long cancer illness.

Dr. Rothman received his B.A. in History from Columbia in1958 and his Ph.D. in History from Harvard in 1964. He returned to Columbia and rose to the rank of Professor of History by 1971. His early research addressed questions of American governance and social policies, including the publication of Politics and Power: The United States Senate, 1869-1901 (1966), The Discovery of the Asylum (1971), and Conscience and Convenience: The Asylum and Its Alternatives in Progressive America (1980). It was clear from the start that this scholar and writer was not afraid to pose questions to persons and sectors of power, and that he asked them on behalf of those governed, those incarcerated, and those treated according to others’ convenience. 

Photo linked from Department of History, Columbia University

In 1983, Dean of the College of Physicians and Surgeons Donald Tapley recruited Dr. Rothman as Director of the medical school’s newly instituted and visionary Center for the Study of Society and Medicine. Dr. Tapley envisioned a locus of free inquiry surrounding increasingly complex questions of social and ethical importance in medicine. Dr. Rothman became the first Director of the Center and the inaugural Bernard Schoenberg Professor of Social Medicine. 

The medical center was for him a source of continued astonishment, indignation, and awe. He went on attending rounds with Drs. John Driscoll of pediatrics, Harold Neu and Tom Morris of medicine, and Lewis Rowland of neurology. He went into the OR with Dr. Eric Rose. He became quickly a coveted speaker at Grand Rounds and a co-investigator for physicians exploring questions of the ethics of organ transplantation or the lived experiences of patients with advanced breast cancer. He brought the same piercing interrogative mind to medicine that had powered his rise in social history. In his first ten years at the medical school, he published a scathing indictment of the unethical human experimentation in hepatitis infection at the Willowbrook School in his and his wife Sheila Rothman’s The Willowbrook Wars (1984)He took the measure of the revolutionary incursion of non-physicians, he being one of them, into the inner sanctum of medicine in the rise of bioethics and health law in Strangers at the Bedside (1991). He co-edited the monumental Medicine and Western Civilization (1995) that combined primary texts from literature, history, psychoanalysis, and social sciences to give physicians and students the grand tour of how medicine is, indeed, one of the humanities and requires knowledge and skills from the humanities in its practice. 

In 2003, the Center for the Study of Society and Medicine merged with the Institute on Medicine as a Profession, funded by the Open Society Institute, which enabled Dr. Rothman to immerse himself in questions of both the lapses in professionalism in medicine and the ideals of professionalism in physician advocacy. He assembled experts from economics and health policy to comb national data banks to understand medicine’s involvement in politics, industry, and the economics of health care. At the same time, he worked tirelessly to support young physicians in their zeal for patient advocacy and selfless idealism. His books of that time include studies of enhancement medicine, lapses in research ethics, and a prescient look in the mid-1990s at the rise of technology in health care. A 2010 anthology, co-edited with David Blumenthal, investigates the information age’s transformation of medical practice and medicine’s very ways of knowing.

Dr. Rothman was honored throughout his career—Phi Beta Kappa, Fulbright professorships, Rockefeller Bellagio residency, and funding from the NEH, NIH, and NSF. He was a member of the Boards of the New York Civil Liberties Union, the Bazelton Center for Mental Health Law, and the Open Society Institute and their Project on Death in America. He was a public intellectual before we had coined the phrase. He became well-known to the readers of The New York Review of Books for his scalpel-like reviews as well as for reviews of his work appearing in Nation, The Economist, Kirkus Review, Commonweal, and the New York Times. Besides being an historian and a bioethicist, he was a stunning writer. Just the names of his books and essays show his enviable gift—On Being Homeless, The Crime of Punishment, Doing Good, Trust Is Not Enough, Shiny Happy People, and Of Prisons, Asylums, and Other Decaying Institutions. 

No wonder he has had such profound influence on our practice of medicine: he both saw our failings with no scotomata and loved us for the grandeur and promise of our work. He felt at home among us, we think, because we invited him to challenge us, to see through our dodges, and to behold with us the mysteries of our precincts. Those of us fortunate to have worked with David came to know his electricity of mind, the synapses, the glee with which he took up an idea, turned it around in his hands, found facets no one had yet to see. Despite his work on the most challenging of issues, he was consumed with the discovery, the vision, the leaps of the search of the mind. We extend our condolences to Dr. Rothman’s family. His wife, Sheila Rothman, is Emerita Professor of Public Health at Columbia and former faculty member in the Division of Social Medicine and Professionalism. His daughter Micol, well known to us as a member of the Class of 1999 of P&S, is Professor of Medicine in the endocrine division at University of Colorado. His son Matthew is Global Head, Quantitative Advisory Business at Millennium Management. We extend our condolences also to Dr. Rothman’s many colleagues at Columbia and throughout the world who benefited from his knowledge and wisdom as a mentor, scholar, and friend. We will do our best to continue the extraordinary legacy he has left for us. 

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