Illustrative image for Hastings Center Cofounder Willard Gaylin 1925 2022

Hastings Center News

Hastings Center Cofounder Willard Gaylin (1925-2022)

Willard Gaylin, an acclaimed psychiatrist and psychoanalyst and a pioneering scholar in bioethics who co-founded The Hastings Center, died on December 30. He was 97.

Gaylin founded The Hastings Center (originally called the Institute of Society, Ethics and the Life Sciences) in 1969 with Daniel Callahan. Gaylin and Callahan, a philosopher who died in 2019, were neighbors in Hastings-on-Hudson, about 15 miles north of New York City.

Gaylin was president of the organization from its inception until 1983. He was chairman of the board from 1993 to 1994 and remained a member of the board until his death. For some 30 years, he served on the faculty of the Columbia Psychoanalytic School as a training and supervising psychoanalyst. He was also Professor of Psychiatry at Columbia Medical School, Professor of Psychiatry and Law at Columbia Law School, and an adjunct professor at Union Theological Seminary.

The author or editor of 20 books, Gaylin wrote about psychological themes and issues in ways that made them come alive for public audiences. Many of his books explored the origins and consequences of emotions. A New York Times review of his book, Hatred, in 2003 called Gaylin “one of our leading explainers of psychology” and said that “his books on love, despair, the male ego, and other puzzles of human nature have unfailingly made difficult questions plain.”

“Will Gaylin wrote about many things from love to death and dying. I was most influenced by his analysis of American individualism–our excessive focus on the self, which, in American bioethics has resulted in a hyper-focus on individual agency, autonomy, or the ability to be self-determining,” said Mildred Solomon, President of The Hastings Center. 

“Of course, Gaylin believed that autonomy is extremely important, but he reminded us that humans need love and nurturing from others, and some reasonable limit-setting, if we are to thrive,” Solomon said.  “In fact, robust autonomy requires those social supports. He also would have put a lot more emphasis on the importance of public health measures to manage crises like the pandemic, arguing that we all should agree to some constraints on our liberty for the sake of the common good.  His critical analysis of American individualism shed light on how much we are missing when we only think about the freedom to be oneself and not the care and obligations we owe to others.”

The Perversion of Autonomy: The Proper Uses of Coercion and Constraints in a Liberal Society, which Gaylin co-authored with Bruce Jennings, a Hastings Center fellow and senior advisor, examines the “insidious moral danger” of America’s excessive focus on the autonomy of the individual. The book, originally published in 1996 and updated in 2003, opens with the story of a homeless mentally ill man in New York City who died on the street across from a hospital after having refused medical care.

Gaylin’s early research on the ethical issues surrounding the modification, or “control,” of human behavior evolved into one of The Hastings Center’s founding four core issues. On the 40th anniversary of The Hastings Center, Gaylin reflected on this work, writing, “The right granted to the psychiatric profession to name the ‘normal’ also has immense powers to modify behavior.”

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition, or DSM-IV, the manual of accepted psychiatric diagnosis, may have influenced more behavior in our current society than the Ten Commandments,” he wrote. “Changes in definitions—what is ‘good,’ ‘healthy,’ ‘normal,’ or for that matter ‘the will of God’—all have massively greater powers to move behavior than drugs or surgery.”

Gaylin received numerous awards and distinctions for his contributions to bioethics. In 1985, he was elected to the Institute of Medicine (now the National Academy of Medicine), one of the very few practicing psychoanalysts to have been honored with that distinction. He was given the George E. Daniels Medal for contributions to psychoanalytic medicine, the Van Gieson Award for outstanding contributions to the mental health sciences, and the Henry Knowles Beecher Award (now The Hastings Center Bioethics Founders’ Award) for lifetime achievement in bioethics. He was a fellow of the American Psychiatric Association and of the New York Psychiatric Society.

Gaylin was born on February 23, 1925. He received a BA in English from Harvard College in 1947, an MD from Western Reserve (now Case Western) University School of Medicine in 1951, and a Certificate in Psychoanalytic Education from the Columbia University Center for Psychoanalytic Training and Research in 1956. For 30 years, he served on the faculty of the Columbia University Center for Psychoanalytic Training and Research as a training and supervising psychoanalyst.

Gaylin was an advisor to several television programs and films that grappled with topics in bioethics and psychology. Gattaca, the critically acclaimed 1997 film that invigorated discourse on eugenics and reproductive technologies, quoted Gaylin in the opening credits:“I not only think that we will tamper with Mother Nature, I think Mother wants us to.”

 In 1989, he appeared in the series Ethics in America hosted by former CBS News president Fred Friendly. He appeared as a panelist on Fatal Attraction: Social Attraction, a 2002 documentary featuring Anne Archer and Glenn Close. The 1981 series Hard Choices, for which he was the narrator, received an Alfred I. DuPont/Columbia Broadcast Award for excellence in TV journalism.

Gaylin served on committees and boards of organizations that sought to advance health care and human rights. He served on the board of directors of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, the medical/scientific Board of the National Aphasia Association, and Helsinki Watch. He was the first chairman of the Human Rights Task for of the American Psychiatric Association, and he served as a member of the Human Rights Committee of the Institute of Medicine.

Gaylin was a “fountain of ideas, of imaginative forays into the issues that we are not, but should be, exploring (ever nagging me on), and of provocative challenges to whatever happens to be the current version of wisdom,” wrote Callahan in a tribute to Gaylin upon his retirement as President of The Hastings Center. “A good partner is as rare in the field of bioethics as anywhere else.”

Gaylin is survived by his daughters, Jody Heyward and Ellen Smith, five grandchildren, and eight great grandchildren. Betty Gaylin, his wife of 71 years, died in 2018.

Gaylin’s family requests that donations be made to Planned Parenthood and The Hastings Center.

Also see the New York Times obituary.

Below links to Will Gaylin on Channel Thirteen’s “The Open Mind” series.