Remembering Daniel Callahan

July 19, 2019

By Ruth Faden

It is with profound sadness and a deep sense of gratitude that we mark the passing of Daniel Callahan, who died on Tuesday, July 16th, just two days shy of his 89th birthday.

Callahan was without question one of the founders and intellectual giants of the field of bioethics. Over the course of an extraordinary career, Callahan wrote 47 books, 17 solo-authored. Nine of his books won national prizes; all took difficult topics to new levels of scrutiny and insight, and many expanded the horizons of bioethics inquiry. Callahan’s most recent book, for example, The Five Horsemen of the Modern World (Columbia University Press, 2016) explored climate change, food, and water as well as chronic illness, and obesity.

In the 1970s and 80s, when I was coming of age in bioethics, it is no exaggeration to say that Dan defined much of what was, and still is, the best of bioethics. His commitment to interdisciplinary inquiry, to rigorous engagement with opposing viewpoints, and to seeking solutions to complex problems was like a magnet to me and others that were looking for a way to make a difference in ethics and public policy.

For many in bioethics, Dan was an extraordinary mentor, advocate and friend who took genuine pleasure in the accomplishments of others. I will never forget one letter I received when I was appointed chair of a presidential committee in the 1990s. It was incredibly supportive and encouraging, a “you can do this” kind of note, signed “an anonymous admirer”. It took me barely a nano-second to deduce that the note was from Dan (who sweetly ‘fessed up in a phone call, replete with more words of encouragement and support).

Dan has inspired so many of us in bioethics in so many ways. A true public intellectual, Dan’s prodigious, probing scholarship remains unmatched in its unique combination of rigor and accessibility. Many of Dan’s insights and arguments will remain vital and vibrant well into the future.

But for all of his extraordinary scholarly accomplishments, Dan Callahan’s legacy will perhaps most be defined by the co-founding and flourishing of the Hastings Center.

At the celebration of the Berman Institute’s 10th anniversary we honored the first recipient of the Harvey M. Meyerhoff Leadership in Bioethics Award. A global civic leader, long-time trustee of the Johns Hopkins University, and member and chair of the Berman Institute Board, Harvey (Bud) Meyerhoff played a major role in the founding and success of the Berman Institute. In establishing the Meyerhoff Leadership Award the intent was to honor people who, like Bud Meyerhoff, exemplify extraordinary leadership, specifically within or in support of the field of bioethics.

The selection committee had no difficulty agreeing on who the first recipient of the Meyerhoff Leadership Award should be.

I can think of no one who better represents the ideals of leadership in the field of bioethics than Dan Callahan. In fact, the story of contemporary biomedical ethics cannot be accurately told without identifying the central role of both Dan and the Hastings Center.

In the late 1960s, Dan foresaw the need for an organization that could engage in systematic intellectual study of the ethical issues raised by the new technological medicine and the broader impact of this new medicine on culture. Serving as the director or president of the Hastings Center for its first 27 years, Dan helped guide the Center from a one-room entity in the basement of his house (supported by a small gift from his mother) into a major center for bioethics scholarship and public engagement.

Today the legacy of Dan Callahan, lies not only in the quality of Hasting Center’s own research projects and of Dan’s own scholarship, but also in the numerous other bioethics scholars and centers that Dan has helped spawn in the United States, Europe, and Asia.

All of us in bioethics are deeply indebted to Dan Callahan. Dan will be sorely missed but his voice and his presence will be ever with us.


Image: By Chip Porter –, CC BY 3.0