By Fr Joseph Tham
On June 13, 2013, Dr. Edmund Pellegrino, MD, MACP, passed away peacefully at the age of 92. He rightfully enjoys the title as a Father of Bioethics, due to the importance of his thoughts and the numerous publications and conferences he has given. Among his many accomplishments, he was the past president of The Catholic University of America and the Chairman of the President’s Council on Bioethics under George W. Bush, and was the founder of the Center for Clinical Bioethics at Georgetown University. Dr. Pellegrino was the author of over 600 publications, the author or co-author of 23 books, and recipient of 52 honorary doctorates.
I got to know him in Washington back in 2005, when I was looking for someone to be my doctoral director. After some persuasion, he agreed to be my director, even though this means the correspondence would not be easy as I was living in Rome and he was stationed in Washington, DC.
When I was writing my doctoral thesis under his direction, I was surprised how serious he takes upon himself in this academic commitment. I remember once sending him a 50-page chapter and got a 10-page detailed response. When he became Chairman of the President’s Council on Bioethics, I thought he would not have time, but that was not the case. He would always take time to write back or meet with me when I had need of him, in spite of his many responsibilities.
In many ways, he incarnated in person the meaning of a virtuous teacher and physician which he has extensively written about. In 2007, he visited Rome and was present at the defense of my dissertation, “The Secularization of Bioethics: A Critical History.” During his presence in School of Bioethics at the Regina Apostolorum university, he also gave lectures to the students, staff and the public. He enjoyed meeting the students and professors alike, and made himself available to talk to everyone who wanted to meet with him.
Another quality that has impressed me and has become an ideal for me to emulate as a professor is the way he gave his full attention to students and anyone who sought his help. Once I attended a talk organized by Catholic medical students in Washington where he was the speaker. The talk was not well attended, only a handful of students came. I thought to myself, here is one of stars in bioethics, talking to young students who probably never heard of him. Yet he was just as enthusiastic and engaging as in any other meetings. Another time, I learnt that he became a personal tutor to a medical student who wanted to know about ethics. I attended one of these sessions and he would be there patiently discussing with him the basics of Aristotelian ethics.
When he was in Rome, we thought that he would prefer to rest in between the classes. But he preferred to stay around and made himself available to talk to the students and staff, whoever wanted to meet with him. Nobody was insignificant to him. He would always find in each student a potential seed that will flourish intellectually and academically. In many ways, he lived in his person the virtues that he spoke so eloquently about in his writings.
Even though Dr. Pellegrino has passed on, his precious wisdom and example has remained with us. He has shown us that bioethics is not only something to be talked of, but something that is lived out. In many ways, he is not only a father of bioethics, but has given me and many of us an example of being father to our students who deserve our best and loving attention. His absence will be sorely missed.