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Posted on October 12, 2020 at 3:17 PM

by Paul Root Wolpe, Ph.D.

I think, mostly, I will remember that look.

Renée Fox, 92, passed away on Sept. 23rd of leukemia. She was a founder of modern medical sociology, a pioneer in the sociological analyses of bioethics, an innovator in the interpretation and ethics of transplants who described them as “an ignoble form of medically rationalized cannibalism,” and a trailblazer who was often introduced as “the first women ever to…” followed by one of her host of academic roles or honors.  Renée also left many devoted students, mentees, and colleagues.  I include myself as all three.

Born in Manhattan, Renée contracted polio as a freshman at Smith College. She said she would never forget the date – Aug 15, 1945 – V-J Day, the day the Japanese surrendered and ended WWII, as she could hear the celebration through her hospital window. Her polio had lasting effects, but never slowed down her extensive travels (she loved fieldwork), such as her participant-observation studies in Belgium, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and China, among others.

Photo linked from Columbia University

After recovering and returning to Smith, Renée wrote her senior honors thesis on the status and role of intellectuals in American Society, through the symbolic as well as the economic and political impact of the Depression. She went on to a Harvard Ph.D. (though it was officially given by Radcliffe, as Harvard did not award women Ph.D.’s at the time) and became a protegee of the great sociologist Talcott Parsons, whose famous work on the “sick role” inspired her to become a medical sociologist and write her dissertation on TB. Receiving no offer after her degree, she initially did research at Columbia and then joined the faculty at Radcliffe.  In 1969 she moved to the University of Pennsylvania where she remained until her retirement in 1998.

Renée’s impact was based on a series of works that profoundly influenced not only medical sociology but bioethics as well. “Training for Uncertainty” (1957), one of her earliest and most influential essays, described what Renée later called the “tragicomic hospital ward” of medical students, overwhelmed by vast amounts of knowledge and the many unknowns in medicine, whose experience she later described in her book Experiment Perilous (1959).  The idea of uncertainty permeated her work for the rest of her career, a touchstone for her analysis of medicine and its forms all over the world.

Renée did not consider herself a bioethicist, but a sociologist of bioethics (and often insisted that I refer to myself in those terms as well). Despite that, she was a major influence on the development of the field both as a critic and as someone who believed in the importance of the bioethical enterprise. She often argued that all bioethicists should be trained in social science before bioethics. 

Renée’s books and articles have changed thinking in a variety of fields. The Courage to Fail and Spare Parts (both written with Judith Swazey) rethink the phenomenon of organ transplant in terms of gift exchange, where “the replaceable body” creates commodities reframed with symbolic and anthropomorphic meanings. The book not only changed thinking about organ transplants, but became a model of sociocultural analysis and critique of Western biomedical ideology.

Renée’s work spanned topics and continents. Her fieldwork in Belgium was based on the unique particularism of Belgian society and she tried to look at the unity underlying its division into distinct groups.  She even followed her inquiry to in its former colony, Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) to better understand Belgian culture and society.  Later, Renée became fascinated with Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF – Doctors Without Borders), and spent a number of years examining the many dilemmas of MSF as it tried to deliver medical care and advocate for the powerless in war zones, among competing ideological groups, and in different political settings. Her research took her to Russia (including penal colonies in Siberia), Chechnya and Dagestan, and South Africa. She also traveled to China and tried to challenge Western bioethics with an essay comparing it to what she found in China.  All this, it should be noted, while coping with the physical challenges leftover from polio.

Renée was a deep and incisive thinker, and insisted that others be that as well. Remember “that look” I mentioned in the opening sentence? It was a challenging, kind, but critical glance, that said “tell me something true, something important.” As you began to speak you hoped her eyebrows would raise a bit and she would give her slight smile, which said “OK, that was worthy of an exchange. Here is what I have to say about it.”

Renée was affectionate and kind to her friends and students. She was a tough thinker while being a dedicated teacher and mentor, and supportive colleague. She took joy in others’ accomplishments and was a cheerleader for her students. 

A last personal note.  In 2007, when I became the President of the American Society of Bioethics and Humanities, I was informed that the annual Lifetime Achievement Award to be given during my presidency was to be awarded to Renée Fox. One of the most cherished and proudest moments of my career was the moment I got to introduce her and hand her an award that was but a small token of the profound impact she had on bioethics, on social science, and on our understanding of medicine itself. 

And, of course, on me.

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