Remembering Alan Wertheimer

Alan Wertheimer

Alan P. Wertheimer, PhD, senior research scholar in the Department of Bioethics at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and professor emeritus of political science at the University of Vermont (UVM), passed away on April 10, 2015.

Dr. Wertheimer was a respected leader and philosopher who made significant contributions to the field of research ethics. Much of his career, however, was spent in the field of political science. As an undergraduate student at New York University (NYU), Dr. Wertheimer took his first course in political philosophy, an experience that served as inspiration for his career. He completed his bachelor’s degree at NYU in 1964, and went on to receive his PhD from Case Western Reserve University in 1968. From there, he took a position teaching political science at UVM, where he continued to teach until 2005. He also served as visiting professor of public policy at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and professor of law at the University of San Diego.

Throughout his tenure at UVM, Dr. Wertheimer explored topics related to the political philosophy of law. Of particular interest were the topics of coercion, exploitation, and consent. He published numerous articles on these topics, as well as several books, including: Coercion (Princeton University Press, 1987) and Exploitation (Princeton University Press, 1996). Upon his retirement from teaching in 2005, Dr. Wertheimer was invited by Ezekiel Emanuel, MD, PhD, who served as chief of the Department of Bioethics at the NIH Clinical Center at the time, to become a visiting scholar in the department. Through this experience, Dr. Wertheimer discovered that coercion and exploitation—topics that he had previously studied in the political science realm—also had a place in research ethics. Though it was originally a year-long engagement, Dr. Wertheimer continued to work with the NIH Clinical Center exploring topics related to research ethics until he passed away.

Dr. Wertheimer’s most recent work at the NIH focused on ethics of clinical research with particular emphasis on issues of coercion, exploitation, and consent. Chief of the NIH Clinical Center’s Department of Bioethics and PRIM&R board member Christine Grady, MSN, PhD, was a colleague of Dr. Wertheimer’s. She shared: “Alan was a well-known and accomplished scholar in political philosophy before coming to bioethics. After he joined the NIH Clinical Center Department of Bioethics, he did some of the finest work the field has ever seen, challenging received wisdom on many important topics in research ethics. Alan was an incredible colleague, teacher, mentor, and friend. His humility, humor, generosity, and kindness touched so many people. We will miss him tremendously.”

In 2012, Dr. Wertheimer sat down with Gigi McMillan for an interview for PRIM&R’s People and Perspectives initiative. During his interview, Dr. Wertheimer talked about his start in the field and shared insights on the topics of coercion and consent, as applied to research ethics.

In addition to his scholarly work, Dr. Wertheimer also demonstrated a commitment to teaching throughout his career. He was an active participant in PRIM&R’s Advancing Ethical Research (AER) Conference for many years, serving as both a breakout session facilitator and panelist. He also served on the Core Conference Planning Committee from 2009 to 2014. David A. Borasky, Jr., MPH, CIP, vice president of quality management at Copernicus Group IRB and PRIM&R board member, had the opportunity to work closely with Dr. Wertheimer during a number of AER Conferences. He reflected on the experience: “It was always such a treat to interact with Alan. I learned a lot by working with him. He was a phenomenal – and patient – teacher. I will miss [the moments] when Alan would ask a provocative question, and as you thought about it (and he could see you thinking about it), a mischievous grin would appear on his face.”

Dr. Wertheimer’s vast contributions to research ethics scholarship have enriched the field and helped challenge conventional wisdom. His commitment to exploring challenging topics, his willingness to teach, and his always kind and generous nature made him a true leader. He will be deeply missed.