September 20, 2002

Zaner toasted for ethics contributions

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Zaner toasted for ethics contributions

About 100 people gathered in the tasteful surroundings of Cheekwood Museum of Art in last night’s twilight hours to pay tribute to a man who, for 21 years, quietly and thoughtfully went about his business here, like a philosopher would be expected to.

Richard “Dick” Zaner, Ph.D., the inaugural Ann Geddes Stahlman Professor of Medical Ethics, became a Professor Emeritus in July, following his retirement.

“Dick Zaner brought the subject of ethics to Vanderbilt Medical Center, and for that we should all be eternally grateful,” said Dr. Frank Boehm, professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology and chair of the ethics committee that Zaner founded.

There had been limited efforts to bring ethical considerations to medicine, and health care more generally, at Vanderbilt, since the early 1960s, but nothing formal developed. In 1982, the year after he arrived, Zaner created the Center for Clinical and Research Ethics and the Ethics Consultation Service. They were two of the first programs of their kind, anywhere. “Nobody had any idea what ethics meant in a medical context,” said Mark Bliton, Ph.D., assistant professor of Philosophy in the Center and one of Zaner’s proteges.

“Dick truly championed the permanent study and pursuit of clinical and research ethics at Vanderbilt,” said Stuart Finder, Ph.D., director of the Center for Clinical and Research Ethics. “He had an idea. He came to Vanderbilt because he wanted to be left alone to work out his idea, of medicine and ethics. He was able to take that idea and transform an institution.”

Through the 1960s and 1970s Zaner served as chair of philosophy departments at Trinity University in San Antonio, the University of Texas and Southern Methodist University, and he created a division of social sciences at the State University of New York at Stony Brook.

Earlier in the week, Zaner, talking from his retirement home in Nassau Bay, Texas, described the early days.

“I was asked to join this field out of the blue,” he said. An acquaintance, Dr. Ed Pellegrino, considered the father of medical ethics, called Zaner on the phone and asked him to follow him to Stony Brook. “I said, ‘Good Lord. What for?’” Zaner says. Until now, his work had been academic. “But it was just as intriguing as all get out, and I grew fascinated with the field. With all there is to think about. …”

In 1980, Zaner, already established as a tender of thought, heard that Vanderbilt was establishing a chair in medical ethics. He had a taste of medicine in New York, but left for SMU and a more suitable living environment. But his ideas were starting to take shape and he continued to make progress on that front. The country was beginning to wrestle with concepts like “living wills” and “end of life” issues. Largely, though, these were debated by ethicists far removed from the stage on which it was being played out.

“I knew that I couldn’t do what I wanted to do as a philosopher. I wanted to get into it in a clinical way, to see if I could help, by working with nurses and doctors. It seemed that if people like myself (philosophers), that if we couldn’t be a presence in the clinical world, we needed to get out of it all together. We were doing more harm than good.” As for choosing Vanderbilt, he said, “I wanted to be in a place that helped to give medicine education its definition, and to have a group of people that were not constantly blocking my way (administratively).”

At Vanderbilt, he transformed the concept of philosophizing about grandiose ethical quandaries with medical implications into one with practical clinical applications at the bedsides of patients and in family waiting rooms and medical student classrooms where life and death questions stared people in the face. He created the Center, the consultation service and the ethics committee, he mentored more than 30 Ph.D. and master’s students and he wrote two critically acclaimed books on the field of medical ethics: “Ethics and the Clinical Encounter” and “Troubled Voices.” A third, “At the Edge of Chance,” was recently accepted without review by Georgetown Press.

Late into the night over dinner, a parade of compatriots lauded Zaner and his contributions, accomplishments for which he never sought recognition. Dr. Steven Gabbe, dean of the School of Medicine, presented Zaner with a crystal obelisk, two colleagues equally influential to ethics were surprise guests and Larry Churchill, Ph.D., Finder and Bliton announced the Richard M. Zaner Lecture in Ethics and Medicine, a permanent, annual lecture series.

Zaner and his wife, June, an artist, moved this year to the Texas coast near Houston. They fish a little and travel some and, Zaner said, he has other books he intends to pen, quietly furthering his contributions.