Van Rensselaer Potter: The Original Bioethicist. (in Memoriam)

Article excerpt

Van Rensselaer Potter, who died 6 September 2001, was the first and foremost bioethicist. The man who coined the term "bioethics" in 1970 died peacefully in the presence of his family, shortly after his ninetieth birthday. His conception of bioethics as a wise integration of biology and values was based on his work as an internationally renowned basic oncologist and inspired by fellow University of Wisconsin faculty member, Aldo Leopold, the pioneer of land ethics. Van's books, Bioethics: A Bridge to the Future and Global Bioethics, laid the framework for a comprehensive theory of bioethics based on a forward-thinking intellectual honesty, a spiritual connection to nature and a personal creed of environmental stewardship.

Van believed in the future and felt a personal responsibility for it. He foresaw the approaching disasters caused by the world's population explosion. He appreciated that evolutionary biology and ecology should provide the biological framework for medicine, not just molecular biology and genetics. He challenged us to think wisely about the complex systems of life on our planet.

Van worked at a large university in a small city but frequently retreated to his country shack outside Madison, Wisconsin. Here, two inexpensive white plastic chairs sitting in the woods were the place where he reflected and thought. He remained at the McArdle Laboratory for his entire academic career and became a caregiver for his wife Vivian later in life.

There is a strong dose of virtue ethics in the almost preachy tone of Potter's bioethics. …