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Posted on December 21, 2016 at 8:57 AM

After over three decades of dedicated service to Albany
Medical College as a researcher, practicing physician, administrator, and
mentor, when some people might consider retirement, John Balint in the early
1990’s was just beginning to redefine his career. It was during this time that
I first met John at the University of Chicago, Center for Clinical Medical
Ethics, when we were both members of the 1993-1994 Fellowship class. I was
privileged to learn about his amazing life up to that point, but what seemed
more important at that time, were his high hopes for the future.

John sought out this fellowship opportunity to prepare
himself to lead the new Center for Medical Ethics which would be charged with
teaching a new course that was being created in the curriculum reform process
called Health, Care, and Society (HCS). To say John was excited about the new
direction of his life was an understatement. As one of the leaders of this
four-year longitudinal course, John was now able to focus on his deepest
passion in medicine: the physician-patient relationship and the elements of
good doctoring.

Of course I know now that John had been preparing for his
new role from the beginning of his life. He often said his interest in the
physician-patient relationship was passed along to him from his father, Michael
Balint, the prominent physician-psychoanalyst and early thought leader on this
topic. As a small boy growing up in Budapest, Hungary, John told me the story
of joining his dad on a trip to Vienna to visit Sigmund Freud, where John
played under Freud’s desk while the two men talked about their patients. Though
John went on to study medicine at Cambridge University in England, and then
received advanced training in gastroenterology both in England and the United
States, he maintained an interest in his father’s work, which included The Doctor, The Patient, and His Illness originally
published in 1957.

John came to Albany Medical College in 1963 to head the new
division of gastroenterology and to put an indelible mark on the institution to
which he dedicated most of his life. From having leading roles in NIH research
grants, to serving as chair of the Department of Medicine and being an invaluable
mentor and teacher to many students, residents, and fellows, John was a
remarkably well-rounded physician-scientist. But most of all, as those who were
around him in the clinical setting know, he was the consummate clinician—a good
doctor in the mold of great doctors since Osler. One can hardly imagine better
preparation, along with a fellowship in medical ethics, for leading the new
program in ethics in Albany.

I was honored and excited when John asked me to join him as
his new associate in the Center For Medical Ethics, Education and Research.
When I joined him in 1994 our primary mission was to develop HCS throughout the
4 years of undergraduate training ,(the first year had begun in 1993-94), start
a new clinical ethics consultation service for the physicians and nurses at
Albany Medical Center, and become part of the lifeblood of the institution.
John was never interested in purely theoretical pursuits in ethics—he wanted
the new focus on ethics to make a positive difference in the lives of the students,
patients and staff we served. Within a few years Liva Jacoby and Sheila Otto
joined John and me, and together we were making our mission a reality. During
our first decade working together I was honored to coauthor a number of papers
with John including our 1996 article, Regaining the Initiative: Forging a New Model
of the Patient-Physician Relation, which was published in JAMA.

John was a visionary who never stopped dreaming about new
possibilities with a great deal of energy and enthusiasm. He was excited to
support the joint Albany Medical College/Union Graduate College Master’s of
Science in Bioethics as well as the new Distinction in Bioethics for our
medical students, both of which began in 2001. By the time John stepped down
from the directorship, the Center for Medical Ethics had become the Alden March
Bioethics Institute, which has continued to grow and flourish. But it began
with John’s passion to make ethics relevant in medical education and in
clinical practice, and to train a new generation of young learners to become
good doctors.

Though we mourn his loss, we also celebrate his remarkable
life and work. He will be greatly missed, but the mission he dedicated himself
to and our memory of him will continue.

The Alden March Bioethics Institute offers a Master of Science in Bioethics, a Doctorate of Professional Studies in Bioethics, and Graduate Certificates in Clinical Ethics and Clinical Ethics Consultation. For more information on AMBI’s online graduate programs, please visit our website.

 

 

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