Engelhardt, leading bioethicist and longtime philosophy professor, dies at 77

Tristram Engelhardt Jr., professor of history and philosophy of medicine, died June 21. He was 77.

In 2015, Engelhardt was presented the Pellegrino Medal for his contributions to healthcare ethics during the 14th annual Healthcare Ethics and Law Institute (HEAL) conference sponsored by Samford University’s McWhorter School of Pharmacy. (Photo courtesy of Samford University)

In 2015, Engelhardt was presented the Pellegrino Medal for his contributions to healthcare ethics during the 14th annual Healthcare Ethics and Law Institute (HEAL) conference sponsored by Samford University’s McWhorter School of Pharmacy. (Photo courtesy of Samford University)

Engelhardt, called “Tris” by his friends and colleagues, was also a Distinguished Emeritus Professor at Baylor College of Medicine, where he taught from 1983 until 2001. As one of the world’s leading scholars on bioethics, he explored the development of modern concepts of health and disease, explanatory models in medicine and the rights and responsibilities of modern health care. Along with the late Rice Professor Baruch Brody, Engelhardt was a vital member of the Center for Medical Ethics and Health Policy at Baylor.

Engelhardt was born in New Orleans, where his father, a physician, taught at the Tulane University School of Medicine. A self-described sixth-generation Texan who was raised in Houston, Engelhardt spoke the Texas German dialect passed down by his father and grandfather. Engelhardt attended the University of Texas at Austin, where he earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in philosophy in 1963 and a doctorate in philosophy in 1969. He received his Doctor of Medicine degree from Tulane in 1972 before returning to UT. He attended the University of Bonn in Germany as a Fulbright fellow.

From 1972 until 1977, Engelhardt taught bioethics at the University of Texas Medical School. He then served as Rosemary Kennedy Professor of the Philosophy of Medicine at Georgetown University and senior research scholar at Georgetown’s Kennedy Institute of Ethics in Washington, D.C., until 1982, when he moved home to Houston to join the faculty in the Department of Philosophy at Rice and teach internal medicine, community medicine and obstetrics and gynecology at Baylor.

“I am a peculiar academic, in that I have come back to live almost in the same neighborhood in which I grew up,” recalled Engelhardt during a 1999 interview for the Acadia Institute Project on Bioethics in American Society.

In 1986, Engelhardt published “The Foundations of Bioethics,” the first single-author text on philosophical issues in bioethics that was both systematic and comprehensive. It was heralded as one of the most important scholarly works ever written on the topic, with the New England Journal of Medicine touting it at the time as “one of the most brilliant books to appear in the field of bioethics.”

From 1984 to 1990, in association with the steering committee of the study group of bioethics of the International Federation of Catholic Universities, Engelhardt took part in discussions on bioethics and moral theory with Roman Catholic scholars, including the late Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini of Milan.

“I was for the first time immersed in the intellectual culture and controversies of Roman Catholicism,” he recalled in 2014. “As a result of these conversations, I was forced to face the question of what it meant to be a Christian, even what it meant to acknowledge the existence of God.”

In 1988, Engelhardt was invited to spend a year as a fellow at the Institute of Advanced Study in West Berlin. There, the lifelong Roman Catholic underwent a religious experience that led to his conversion to Orthodox Christianity. He was baptized in 1991, back home at a Texas monastery, and changed his first name from Hugo to Herman in honor of Saint Herman of Alaska.

From that point forward, Engelhardt focused much of his scholarly work on the topic of Christian bioethics, with particular interest in Orthodox Christian bioethics. He published a thoroughly revised and expanded second edition of “The Foundations of Bioethics” in 1996. It was met with equal acclaim as the first and was translated into Chinese, Italian, Japanese, Portuguese and Spanish.

In 2000, he published the sequel to these editions, “The Foundations of Christian Bioethics,” which explored the marginalization of Christian bioethics in the 1970s, the shortcomings of secular ethics and the challenge of maintaining the Christian identity faced by physicians, nurses, patients and health care institutions in a culture that Engelhardt believed is firmly post-Christian.

In addition to his long career as an educator and scholar, Engelhardt also served as editor-in-chief of two publications, the Journal of Medicine and Philosophy and Christian Bioethics. He edited the book series “Philosophy and Medicine” and served as a fellow at the Hastings Center, an independent bioethics research institute.

As a professor, Engelhardt gave articulate and thought-provoking lectures delivered in his signature Houston accent. According to a 1979 profile in Canadian Family Physician, Engelhardt’s “grasp of the history of human thought tends to boggle the listener’s mind: His faint Texan drawl wraps itself neatly around verbatim Latin quotations and slides unhesitatingly into tangled Texan laws, complete with paragraphs and subsections — all seemingly without reference to notes.”

In 2015, many of his former students and colleagues in the field compiled “At the Foundations of Bioethics and Biopolitics: Critical Essays on the Thought of H. Tristram Engelhardt Jr.,” which collected international scholars to assess key elements of his work over the years.

“Most can agree that H. Tristram Engelhardt Jr. has a brilliant mind and a big personality: He can rehearse a large portion of history in the form of a question; he is often the source of much controversy; and as a professor and scholar he has had a profound impact on the fields of bioethics, philosophy of medicine and Christian ethics,” wrote Jennifer Bulcock ‘15, who earned a doctorate in philosophy at Rice under the mentorship of Engelhardt. “While Tris’ genius is evident in the written and oral presentation of his work, and his zeal for sustained academic debate and controversy is obvious at any conference he attends, Tris’ deep devotion, loyalty and love for his friends and students is often underappreciated by those who have not had the distinct honor of occupying one of these roles.”

“Tris was a towering figure in academic bioethics,” wrote O. Carter Snead, director of the Center for Ethics and Culture at the University of Notre Dame, where Engelhardt was a frequent and engaged participant in the center’s annual medical ethics conferences. “We will deeply miss his singular brilliance, spirit and warmth.”

Engelhardt is survived by his wife of 53 years, Susan, and three daughters.

A Trisagion service was held at 6 p.m. June 24, followed by a visitation and reading of the psalms. The funeral service was held at 10 a.m. June 25. Both services were held at Houston’s St. George Orthodox Church, 5311 Mercer St.

About Katharine Shilcutt

Katharine Shilcutt is a media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.