Illustrative image for Tribute to Eric Cassell

Hastings Center News

Tribute to Eric Cassell

The Hastings Center mourns the passing of Eric Cassell, a pioneer in patient-centered care who was a Hastings founding fellow and former board member, on September 24, at age 93. 

Dr. Cassell (above, far left) wrote prolifically on medicine’s moral issues and care of the dying. Especially influential was his book The Nature of Suffering and the Goals of Medicine (1991). His many other books include The Healer’s Art (1976), Changing Values in Medicine (1979), Talking with Patients (1984), The Place of the Humanities in Medicine (1984), and The Nature of Healing: The Modern Practice of Medicine (2013).

He traced his early insights into pain, suffering, and the doctor’s proper role in their treatment to his participation in 1971 in The Hastings Center’s Task Force on Death and Dying, which examined the definition of death and decisions to forgo life-sustaining treatment. (In the photo, Dr. Cassell is at the far left, with Hastings Center co-founder Willard Gaylin at The Hastings Center’s 50th anniversary celebration in September 2019.)

“Eric Cassell reminded generations of physicians that they needed to think about the patient, the patient’s experiences and goals, and the meaning their illness was having on their lives – not just the disease and its technical demands,” said Hastings Center president Mildred Solomon. “He elevated the importance of responding to suffering, and expanded our understanding of it. His insights have been foundational for many developments in medicine, including the origins of the palliative care movement, patient-centered care, and even disability rights.”

“In distinguishing pain from suffering, Eric Cassell forever changed how doctors spoke with patients about their distress,” said Joseph J. Fins, MD, The E. William Davis Jr., MD Professor of Medical Ethics  & Professor of Medicine and chief of the Division of Medical Ethics  at Weill Cornell Medical College, who is a Hastings Center board member and fellow. “His contributions will endure as long we struggle with human frailty and seek to comfort those who are in pain and suffering.”

Dr. Cassell served on the President’s National Bioethics Advisory Board from 1997 to 2001. Among his many honors, he was a member of the Academy of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences and a Master of the American College of Physicians. He received the lifetime achievement award from the American Society of Bioethics and Humanities and a doctor of humane letters from the Medical College of Pennsylvania.

Dr. Cassell was emeritus professor of Public Health at Weill Cornell Medical College, adjunct professor of medicine at McGill  University, and adjunct professor of humanities in medicine at Baylor University. He received his BA from Queens College, MA from Columbia University, and MD from New York University College of Medicine.

In lieu of flowers, it was Dr. Cassell’s wish that donations be made to The Hastings Center.

“I believe it is true to say that if there were no Hastings Center I would have done none of the writing of these last two decades,” he wrote in The Nature of Suffering and the Goals of Medicine.