Dr. Daniel Sulmasy: Bridging Medicine and Philosophy

(September 28, 2017) – In 1986, a chance meeting between the bioethics giant Edmund D. Pellegrino, MD, MACP, and Daniel P. Sulmasy, MD, PhD, MACP, then a young medical resident, shaped Sulmasy’s formative professional years — from what he studied to where.

Now, three decades later and well into his career, Sulmasy finds himself inextricably linked to Pellegrino, whose name still engenders tremendous respect at Georgetown and beyond. Earlier this year, Sulmasy joined the faculty here to take a new position that bridges two sides of the Georgetown campus — medicine and philosophy.

“Fun to be Back”

Three days after that fateful meeting between Sulmasy and Pellegrino, Sulmasy received a two-page letter from Pellegrino, founding director of Georgetown’s Center for Clinical Bioethics, explaining why Sulmasy should study medical ethics with him at Georgetown. Persuaded by Pellegrino, Sulmasy finished his medical fellowship at Johns Hopkins (he completed his MD at Cornell University Medical College) and came to Georgetown, where, under Pellegrino’s mentorship, he earned his doctorate in philosophy. 

Sulmasy left Georgetown nearly 20 years ago to take an endowed chair at New York Medical College and St. Vincent’s Hospital in New York. For the last eight years, he served as the Kilbride-Clinton Professor of Medicine and Ethics in the department of medicine and divinity school at the University of Chicago as well as the associate director of the MacLean Center for Clinical Medical Ethics.

This winter, Sulmasy returned to the Hilltop to pursue a unique new opportunity that will allow him to continue the work he started with Pellegrino as his mentor. “It’s fun to be back,” Sulmasy said. “Parts of the day, I wonder if I ever left.”

Bioethics: Next Gen

As the inaugural André Hellegers Professor of Biomedical Ethics, Sulmasy has appointments in both the department of medicine at Georgetown University School of Medicine and in the department of philosophy at Georgetown College. Sulmasy is also senior research scholar at the Kennedy Institute of Ethics and a faculty member at the Pellegrino Center for Clinical Bioethics, renamed in 2013 in honor of Sulmasy’s late mentor.

Sulmasy’s appointment is part of a larger effort at Georgetown to recruit faculty members who can straddle multiple areas across the university. “I think it’s a recognition on the part of the university that contemporary scholarship has become so multidisciplinary that they have to be forward thinking about this,” he said.

Moreover, at a recent philosophy department meeting, Sulmasy noticed that half of the attendees had been his professors, illustrating the need for fresh new perspectives in the department. “The philosophy department, Kennedy Institute of Ethics and Pellegrino Center all recognize that some of the giants of the field who were here have either retired or expired,” he said. “And there’s a need to recognize that Georgetown needs to maintain its preeminence for the next generation of bioethics.”

Since coming to Georgetown, Sulmasy has been warmly received by his colleagues. “I was happy to see Dr. Sulmasy return to Georgetown not only because I was well acquainted with him personally and professionally but because this is such an appropriate place for him to be. He represents so much of what Ed Pellegrino taught,” said G. Kevin Donovan, MD, director of the Pellegrino Center for Clinical Bioethics. “He fits in very neatly in what we’re trying to do which is carry forward Pellegrino’s vision of bioethics, which is both clinical and in the Catholic moral tradition.”

“Dr. Sulmasy is truly one of the world leaders in bioethics,” said Maggie Little, PhD, director of the Kennedy Institute of Ethics and professor of philosophy. “It is fitting that the chair he inaugurates is named for André Hellegers, founding director of the Kennedy Institute of Ethics: a physician who helped to found the field of bioethics here at Georgetown by working innovatively across disciplines, always with an eye to public service and the public good. We are deeply excited and honored to have Dr. Sulmasy rejoin the Georgetown community, especially at this moment when the university is reaffirming its commitment to lead in bioethics and other fields of applied ethics.”

Formative Experiences

Before meeting Pellegrino, Sulmasy was inspired by his work. "I have to say that when I was a medical student, it was the first time I read any of Ed Pellegrino’s books and I thought to myself at that point, that’s the kind of doctor I want to be," he said. At Georgetown, Sulmasy developed a warm mentoring relationship with Pellegrino, “who, in the truest sense of the word, became my ‘Doktorvater’ or doctoral father,” he said.

However, an experience he faced as a medical student showed Sulmasy the kind of doctor he did not want to be. While treating a patient who reported feeling shortness of breath, Sulmasy determined that she had an advanced case of breast cancer that was pressing on her spinal cord. When the neurologist told the patient her diagnosis, he entered her room with a group of residents and said, “Lady, you’ve got a big fat tumor stuck on your spinal cord.”

“I was shocked,” Sulmasy said. “I was standing in the doorway and when they went down the hall to see the next patient, I was left with this weeping woman who had been just devastated with this news delivered in such a perfunctory way. I vowed to myself that I would be about doing medicine a different way — a way that promoted healing in a more holistic way.”

In his role at Georgetown, Sulmasy will have the opportunity to help medical students decide what kind of doctors they want to be. He will spend approximately half of his time teaching philosophy and seeing patients while he will spend the other half of his time teaching medical students and writing about medical ethics. Sulmasy also serves as the editor of the journal Theoretical Medicine and Bioethics and has received a grant from the McDonald Agape Foundation to conduct three annual conferences on bioethics at Georgetown.

Jesuit Identity

Sulmasy, appointed this year by Pope Francis as an Ordinary Member of the Pontifical Academy for Life, said that he looked forward to studying theoretical bioethics while being grounded as a physician in a Catholic and Jesuit setting. “Knowing that the Catholic Jesuit identity has a history here, has a future here and the opportunity to be a part of that is very exciting to me,” he said.

As a scholar, Sulmasy has focused on end of life issues and the intersection of religion, spirituality and ethics. Five of his six books have dealt with religion, spirituality and medicine. “Now and At the Hour of Our Death,” a book Sulmasy is currently working on, will cover integrated ethics and spirituality ethics for patients at the end of life.

“It’s disquieting to think about our mortality and our limits, to think about the limits of medicine, to think about the limits of human life itself,” Sulmasy said. “On the other hand, it is a grave error not to think about these questions and it has led to very serious ethical problems when we care for dying patients.”

“While the end is always sad, it is also clear that everything that lives dies and that includes human beings and if we’re really to flourish, we have to find ways to flourish as mortal beings and that means thinking clearly about how we care for each other at the end of our lives,” he said.