Black and white portrait of Will Gaylin

Bioethics Forum Essay

Will Gaylin’s Wit, Wisdom, and Kindness

I suspect that most people’s introduction to Will Gaylin came from the introduction to the 1997 film Gattaca where this quote appears: “I not only think that we will tamper with Mother Nature. I think Mother wants us to.” 

So much of what made Will special and memorable is apparent in those two crisp sentences: his wit; his ability to provoke and unsettle; his wisdom on and fascination with how humans think, feel, and act.

I’ve had the privilege of knowing more than a few extraordinarily brilliant people from whose mouths seemed to spill spontaneous gems of polished prose. None surpassed Will. For those of us who must struggle in our writing to convey with clarity the complicated ideas we are driven to share, Will’s gift for off-the-cuff eloquence was awe-inspiring.

From uncountable hours spent with Will planning our joint projects, in the always spirited research group meetings, over cups of coffee in The Hastings Center’s kitchen on the Friday mornings when he brought eagerly awaited Entenmann’s pastries to share with us, and, later, when Will and his wife, Betty, shared glasses of wine with my wife, Cynthia, and me on Cape Cod, I came to treasure my time with him. Will used his astounding verbal agility, perfectly adapted to the Fred Friendly Columbia University Seminars on Media and Society to which he frequently contributed, not to intimidate but to invite conversation and disagreement. 

Will is credited with well over 100 articles and 20 books. We learned that he dictated his books, which Betty would then type. (As I recall, Cynthia reacted to that revelation with a mixture of astonishment and amusement—no such division of labor was remotely contemplated in our home.) He was a fount of fascinating, provocative ideas. I’ve wondered if his decades of work as a psychoanalyst, which I imagine required endless hours of patient listening, as a dam holds back the river’s flow, held back, for the moment, the torrent of ideas that coursed through Will’s fertile mind. Eventually they poured out into his speaking and writing. 

Most of all, I want to emphasize the kindness that Will and Betty—and there was no doubt they were full partners in this—showed us in good times and, especially, in the worst of times.

They encouraged us to vacation on Cape Cod, where they had recently purchased a summer home, in the early 1980s, directing me to an agent who replied, yes, he had an inexpensive weekly rental that accommodated 11–our family of six plus our cousins’ family of five. Thus began a string of 24 summers going to that same house, leading eventually to our purchase of a home one town over, where we now live. Will suggested that I look at the post of director of a nascent biomedical ethics center in Cleveland—Will’s hometown—after a memorable afternoon over glasses of wine. Will asked if we were ready to leave Texas, where I’d gone to work with a wonderful colleague and friend, Ron Carson, at University of Texas Medical Branch. Before I could utter the word “no” Cynthia uttered a forceful “yes!” The next summer we were on our way to the School of Medicine at Case Western Reserve University for an eventful and rewarding 11-plus years. Shaker Heights was and is a great place to raise a family.

What we remember with especial gratitude and love is how Will and Betty rushed to offer comfort and support when we needed it most. In 1983 I collapsed just before a lecture I was supposed to give in Michigan. The prosthetic aortic valve that kept me alive was failing; not enough blood was reaching my brain. Will used his network to find the best surgeon in the New York City area. The ball-and-cage replacement valve will be 40 years old this April. When I returned home after surgery, Will and Betty were among the very first to visit us. Their company was priceless; they also bought gifts. I remember books I read while recuperating; Cynthia remembers a sweater from Bloomingdale’s (the only item I’ve ever owned from that emporium).

In November 2000 we learned that our daughter Emily was missing from her college campus in rural Ohio. Whatever energy we could summon from the dread that threatened to envelop us was devoted to searching for our daughter. Being in our company was, I’m sure, emotionally wrenching. Betty and Will showed up immediately making the long drive north from Hastings-on-Hudson, N.Y, to Cold Spring, bearing food and, most of all, their companionship and empathy. That took courage, and loving hearts. We will always remember, and always be grateful to, Will and Betty Gaylin.

Thomas H. Murray is President Emeritus of The Hastings Center. He was President from 1999 to 2012.

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  1. Perfect, Tom. I tried to comment online but kept getting error messages. Here’s what I said, “Thank you, Tom. Will was brilliant, but he was also a mensch. You’ve captured that perfectly.” – Bonnie Steinbock

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