Willard Gaylin A Pioneer In Bioethics Is Dead At 97

Willard Gaylin, a Pioneer in Bioethics, Is Dead at 97

Willard Gaylin A Pioneer In Bioethics Is Dead At 97

A psychiatrist, he started the Hastings Center with Daniel Callahan, a leading Roman Catholic thinker, to explore the moral issues arising from medical advances.

Willard Gaylin, a founder of a pioneering research center that wrestled with provocative issues like human behavior, death and dying, personal autonomy and genetics, died on Dec. 30 in Valhalla, N.Y., in Westchester County. He was 97.

His daughter Jody Heyward confirmed the death.

In 1969 Dr. Gaylin, a psychiatrist, and Daniel Callahan started the Hastings Center, devoted to the study of bioethics, in Hastings-on-Hudson, north of New York City. They brought contrasting backgrounds to the venture: Dr. Gaylin was a Jewish psychiatrist and professor; Mr. Callahan (who died in 2019) was a leading liberal Roman Catholic thinker who eventually left the church.

They also played different roles. Mr. Callahan was the center’s operational executive; Dr. Gaylin, who held the title of president for many years, involved himself with various research groups while also maintaining a private practice and writing books.

“He is a fountain of ideas, of imaginative forays into the issues that we are not but should be exploring (ever nagging me on), and of provocative challenges to whatever happens to be the current version of wisdom,” Mr. Callahan wrote of Dr. Gaylin in 1994 in The Hastings Center Report, the organization’s bimonthly journal.

Dr. Gaylin brought his psychiatric lens to the center’s exploration of issues like physician-assisted suicide, cloning and the financing of research on human embryonic stem cells. He was also a sounding board for Mr. Callahan and the center’s staff.

“He had a polymathic mind, but a playful mind,” Alexander Capron, a bioethicist who was one of the center’s founding fellows, said in a phone interview. “So a young research associate would have a conversation with him and he would throw up a lot of contrarian ideas to make sure they were thinking of those kinds of things. He enriched our thinking through that process.”

Ruth Macklin, who was an associate for behavioral studies at the center, said that Dr. Gaylin’s contribution “was less to the articles we wrote than to our meetings and conferences, where he was a master of oral, colorful language, with wonderful metaphors.” And, she added in a phone interview, “He was such a fast thinker who in his speech often got ahead of himself; a million things were coming to his mind all at once.”

He explored, for example, the ethics of behavior control through brain surgery, electrical stimulation and drugs. Reflecting on the subject, Dr. Gaylin wrote in the center’s journal in 2009: “We attempt to control climate, populations, disease, unemployment and crime, all to general approval, but research that is seen as changing or controlling ‘the nature of our species’ or our behavior and ‘free will’ seems to impose a special threat.”

“With other research,” he added, “we glory in our identification with the scientist. Such scientific pursuit elevates us above, and distinguishes us from, the common animal host. With behavior control, we identify with the research animal as well as the researcher.”

Dr. Gaylin, right, with Mr. Callahan. Their center explored issues like physician-assisted suicide, cloning and the financing of research on human embryonic stem cells. via The Hastings Center

Willard Marvin Gaylin was born on Feb. 23, 1925, in Cleveland. His father, Harry, sold insurance, and his mother, Fay (Baumgard) Gaylin, was a homemaker.

After serving in the Navy, he earned a bachelor’s degree in English from Harvard in 1947 and a medical degree from Western Reserve University (now Case Western Reserve) in 1951.

He was an intern at Cleveland City Hospital and a psychiatric resident at the Veterans Administration Hospital in the Bronx (now the James J. Peters Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center) before earning his certificate in psychoanalysis from the Columbia University Center for Psychoanalytic Training and Research in 1956.

Over the next half-century, he worked in private practice and also served as a training and supervising psychoanalyst at Columbia’s psychoanalytic center and a professor of psychiatry and law at Columbia Law School.

Dr. Gaylin met Mr. Callahan in 1964 in Hastings-on-Hudson, where both men lived. At dinner parties, Mr. Callahan wrote, “Will was always lively and gregarious, and sometimes combative; that is, a perfect dinner partner and enjoyable arguing companion as well.”

Mr. Callahan approached Dr. Gaylin with his idea for a bioethics center in late 1968. The next year, they founded the Institute of Society, Ethics and the Life Sciences, which they eventually renamed the Hastings Center.

“As a young scholar, I was afraid of Will — he was a formidable presence,” Thomas Murray, who was a research associate at the center in the 1980s and became its president in 1999, said by phone. “He had no patience for foolishness and wouldn’t hesitate to tell you if you made a mistake. I learned a great deal from him.”

Dr. Murray, Dr. Macklin and Dr. Gaylin edited and contributed to “Feeling Good and Doing Better: Ethics and Nontherapeutic Drug Use” (1984). In his opening essay, Dr. Gaylin wrote that despite the promise of mood-altering drugs to understand mental illness, addiction and other health problems, they aroused as much discomfort as they did satisfaction.

“It is part of what I have referred to as the ‘Frankenstein Factor,’” he wrote. “Research that changes or controls ‘the nature of our species’ or allows for any ‘mechanical’ influencing of human behavior will almost inevitably be received with more fear than other research that may be riskier for the individual and more dangerous to the species.”

“Feeling Good and Doing Better” was one of many books Dr. Gaylin wrote, some with Hastings Center colleagues but mostly on his own, on subjects including rage, hatred, despair and psychotherapy.

Reviewing “Hatred: The Psychological Descent Into Violence” (2003) in The New York Times, the anthropologist Melvin Konner wrote, “Willard Gaylin has long been one of our leading explainers of psychology, and his books on love, despair, the male ego and other puzzles of human nature have unfailingly made difficult questions plain.”

Dr. Gaylin examined the 1977 bludgeoning death of a Yale student, Bonnie Garland, by her former boyfriend Richard Herrin in “The Killing of Bonnie Garland: A Question of Justice” (1982). Mr. Herrin pleaded not guilty by reasons of mental disease or defect. He was convicted of manslaughter.

“With skillful analysis,” David Johnston wrote in his review of that book in The Los Angeles Times, “he examines the ever-broadening interpretations of the insanity defense and how our perceptions (and popular misconceptions) about Freudian thinking befuddle and confuse our criminal justice system, just as Bonnie’s rejection befuddled and confused Herrin.”

In addition to Ms. Heyward, Dr. Gaylin, who lived in Hastings-on-Hudson, is survived by another daughter, Ellen Smith; his brother, Sheldon; five grandchildren; and eight great-grandchildren. His wife, Betty (Schofer) Gaylin, whom he met in junior high school, died in 2018.

Dr. Gaylin was the host of “Hard Choices,” a six-part 1981 public television series that explored subjects including genetic screening, the rights of the dying, human research and behavior control. It received an Alfred I. duPont-Columbia Broadcast Award for excellence in television journalism.

“These are not medical problems,” Dr. Gaylin told The Associated Press. “They are moral problems, value problems. Who should get the kidney machine, the 25-year-old mother or the 62-year-old senator?”

He added: “In a sense, moral problems are never solved, but that doesn’t mean the center is a depressing place. It’s exciting, because you’re at the cutting edge of social change.”

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