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MARCH/APRIL 2012

Dr. Arthur Caplan at NYU: The Education of a Bioethicist
By Jacob M. Appel, M.D., J.D.

Arthur Caplan did not set out to become the nation’s foremost bioethicist.

“When I became interested in the field, there wasn’t any field yet,” reflects Professor Caplan, who is currently the director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania and will soon take over a new bioethics division at New York University. That was in the 1970s, when the interdisciplinary study of medicine, ethics and technology was just emerging as a domain of inquiry, and when its pioneering institutions, including the Hastings Center and Georgetown’s Kennedy Institute of Ethics, were still in their infancies. Caplan, then a Ph.D. candidate in the philosophy of science at Columbia University, saw an advertisement for a scholar to teach a class in medical ethics at Columbia’s College of Physicians and Surgeons — and he thought, “I can do that.” He confesses his motives weren’t entirely “lofty”: He needed a job.

The course “didn’t go well,” Caplan concedes; in hindsight, he notes that he relied too heavily on theory, rather than on applied cases. Yet he impressed the medical school’s associate dean for academic affairs, the noted psychoanalyst Bernard Schoenberg, who allowed Caplan to spend a full year on campus in the role of a medical student. “I viewed the hospital as an ethical or moral lab,” Caplan says. Armed with these experiences, he was able to bring hands-on knowledge into his own classroom.

Caplan touts the mentors who supported him early in his career. “I had several mentors,” he recalls. “They didn’t always understand what I was doing, but they put up with me.” In addition to Dr. Schoenberg, these included the Czech-American philosopher of science Ernest Nagel at Columbia, and later Willard Gaylin and Daniel Callahan, two of the most prominent early bioethicists, at the Hastings Center. Caplan now strives to mentor his own students with equal commitment. Although he is an internationally renowned figure who writes a regular column for MSNBC and does frequent media appearances in addition to his academic writing, Caplan stresses the importance of prioritizing the needs of his students at Penn.

“I make sure to leave enough time for them,” he explains. “It’s important not to let [other commitments] get in the way.” He even answers email messages from young men and women around the country who request help with their homework — attempting to steer them toward helpful ideas or resources. “I don’t spend an hour on it,” he says, “but I do try to help.”
What advice does Professor Caplan have for college students hoping to follow in his footsteps? “Master a discipline,” he urges. Although there are numerous paths to a career in bioethics — medicine, nursing, law, social work, and many others — Caplan stresses that to succeed in an interdisciplinary field, it is essential first to have a grounding in one specific discipline. “You can’t cross disciplines if you’re not part of one,” he says. It also doesn’t hurt to have enthusiasm for what you do, which Professor Caplan clearly has in abundance. #

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