Rene Fox

Hastings Center News

Remembering Renée Fox

The Hastings Center is saddened by the death of Renée C. Fox on September 23 at the age of 92. A Hastings Center Fellow, she was Professor Emerita of sociology and Annenberg Professor Emerita of the Social Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania.

Fox  was a sociologist who was a deeply insightful, and often critical, observer of American bioethics. Her influence on the field was enormous, and in 2015, she received The Hastings Center’s Henry Knowles Beecher Award for lifetime achievement in bioethics.

“Renée Fox had an incisive, critical mind and a warm accepting heart.  She offered criticisms of bioethics that made it better,” said Mildred Solomon, president of The Hastings Center. “Before we ever had a name for it, she was a pioneer in empirical ethics, opening new doors for the field and new career pathways for many of us who chose to follow her lead. I will miss her, as will thousands who have been enriched by her work, her openness to people and ideas, and by her transformative mentorship.”

From Experiment Perilous: Physicians and Patients Facing the Unknown (1959), her examination of ethical dilemmas inherent in treating gravely ill patients with experimental interventions, to Doctors without Borders: Humanitarian Quests, Imposésible Dreams of Médecins Sans Frontières (2014), which analyzes how this humanitarian organization confronts ethical choices, her analyses called into question much bioethics dogma and challenged the field to develop greater self-criticism.

In addition to these books, Fox was the author or co-author of seven books, including (with Judith P. Swazey) Observing Bioethics (2008) and, most recently, Explorations of a Mind-Traveling Sociologist, published in 2019.

Fox was a summa cum laude graduate of Smith College in 1949 and earned her PhD in Sociology in 1954 from Radcliffe College, Harvard University.

Before joining the faculty of the University of Pennsylvania in 1969, she was a member of the Columbia University Bureau of Applied Social Research, taught for 12 years at Barnard College, and then spent two years as a Visiting Lecturer in the Department of Social Relations at Harvard.

Fox’s major teaching and research interests – sociology of medicine, medical research, medical education, and medical ethics – involved her in first-hand, participant observation-based studies in Continental Europe (particularly in Belgium), in Central Africa (especially in the Democratic Republic of Congo), and in China, as well as in the United States.

“From her days as a Founding Fellow of The Hastings Center (then the Institute for Society, Ethics and the Life Sciences), and before then through works such as Experiment Perilous, Renée was deeply committed to exploring and analyzing the social and cultural contexts of myriad issues in bioethics,” said Judith Swazey, a longtime colleague of Fox who is an adjunct professor of social and behavioral sciences at Boston University Schools of Medicine and Public Health. “Her important work in these areas dealt with how they were framed in the United States and in many other countries, providing important cross-cultural perspectives too often neglected by bioethics.”

Among her many honors, Fox was a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Philosophical Society, and the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences; a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science; and an Honorary Member of Alpha Omega Alpha Honor Medical Society. She was awarded a Radcliffe Graduate School Medal, a Centennial Medal from the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences of Harvard University, and the American Sociological Association’s Leo G. Reeder Award for Distinguished Contributions to Medical Sociology.  She received several teaching awards: the E. Harris Harbison Gifted Teaching Award of the Danforth Foundation and a Lindback Foundation Award for Teaching at the University of Pennsylvania. She held 11 honorary degrees, and in 1995, the Belgian Government named her Chevalier of the Order of Leopold II. In 2007, she was the recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award of the American Society for Bioethics and Humanities.