Pioneer in Bioethics Daniel Callahan Dies

He was the cofounder of the Hastings Center and wrote nearly 50 books on topics including abortion, aging, and medical progress.

Chia-Yi Hou
Jul 22, 2019
Daniel Callahan

Prolific bioethics philosopher Daniel Callahan of the Hastings Center, an institution that helped establish the field of bioethics, died on July 16. Callahan cofounded the center in 1969 with Willard Gaylin and served as director and then president from its founding through the mid-1990s. He actively published essays until his death, two days before his 89th birthday.

Callahan began his philosophy career in the 1950s. He recognized that as humanity was entering a new era of “gaining progressive control over body and world, we might also become tone-deaf and mute on matters having to do with patience and acceptance, community and mutual care, ambiguity, humility, fairness, and stewardship,” writes Mildred Solomon, who is currently president of the Hastings Center, in a memorial on the organization’s website.

Callahan published 47 books, nine of which received national awards. “Dan’s thinking was always fresh and his prose clear and penetrating,” writes Drew Christiansen in America Magazine. Some of his titles include, Abortion: Law, Choice and Morality, Setting Limits: Medical Goals in an Ageing Society, and What Kind of Life: The Limits of Medical Progress. His main interests stemmed from technological and medical advances. He questioned why those advances were being pursued and was worried about using biotechnology wisely. He was also interested in patient-centered approaches to end-of-life care and the role of markets on health care policy, writes Solomon.

Callahan was also concerned with global trends such as obesity and ecological degradation and how those were the unintended consequences of industrial growth, eating habits, and extended lifespans. In 2016, he published the book The Five Horsemen of the Modern World, which discusses the ethical, social, political, and economic aspects of climate change, the food and water crises, chronic illness, and obesity. 

Besides his writing, he encouraged public discussion, writes Solomon. Tom Murray, a former president of the Hastings Center, writes in a memorial on Bioethics that Callahan was the “most important person in Bioethics. For his ideas; for his role in creating and nurturing The Hastings Center; and for his ability to spot, encourage, and motivate talent.”

Daniel Callahan with staff members ca. 1979-1980

 Chia-Yi Hou is an intern at The Scientist. Email her at