In Memoriam: Charles McCarthy, PhD 

The research ethics community mourns the loss of Charles R. McCarthy, PhD, a giant of the research ethics field and a beloved member of the PRIM&R family, who passed away on October 14, 2022, at the age of 96.

”Charlie,” as he was known to all who were lucky enough to know and work with him, served on the PRIM&R Board of Directors from 1993 to 2011. He was awarded PRIM&R’s Lifetime Achievement Award for Excellence in Research Ethics in 2003, became a Distinguished Leader of PRIM&R in 2012, and was recognized as a Pillar of PRIM&R in 2021.  

Charlie was a true founding father of the field of human research protections. While at the NIH in the early 1970s, Charlie helped to draft the National Research Act for the US Congress. Enacted in 1974, the National Research Act created the National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioral Research and required that Department of Health Education and Welfare (DHEW) create human subjects protection regulations. Charlie served as the DHEW liaison to the National Commission, which went on to create the Belmont Report, and drafted for DHEW the first set of regulations for the protection of human subjects of research. 

Charlie was subsequently appointed director of the NIH’s Office for the Protection from Research Risks (OPRR), the predecessor office to the Office for Human Research Protections (OHRP) and the Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare (OLAW). Charlie was OPRR’s longest-serving director, holding the role during the critical period from 1977 to 1993. In that role, he was charged with protecting the rights of human subjects and promoting the welfare of laboratory animals.  

During that time, Charlie served as Chair of the Committee to revise the HHS Regulations for the Protection of Human Subjects, published in 1981 and later adopted as the Common Rule. From 1983 to 1985, he served as Chairman of the Committee to create the PHS Policy for the Care and Use of Laboratory Animals, published in 1985.

In 1992, Charlie retired from government service, but his involvement with research  ethics continued. Until 2016 he worked part-time, contributing his vast store of knowledge to Virginia Commonwealth University’s newly created Office of Education and Compliance Oversight.  

Across his long and distinguished career, Charlie authored many publications, served on and led key committees on research and its oversight, lectured widely, and was a mentor to many. His impact on the field of research ethics and, in particular, human subjects protections, was immense. He was also a warm, gracious, fair, wise, and delightful human being. He will be tremendously missed, but his legacy lives on in the work of so many.  

PRIM&R is honored to share some of the remarkable People and Perspective Sessions that illustrate Charlie’s wide-ranging impact on the field.   

You can read Charlie’s obituary here. 

We have gathered words from members of the PRIM&R community who knew Charlie well here.

We welcome your memories and kind words about Charlie in the comments below.  


We will remember him as a wonderful, warm, gracious, and incredibly smart gentleman. His tremendous impact on the field of research ethics and human subject protections will continue to serve us for generations.

Monika S. Markowitz

Charlie was simply a lovely human being. He brought joy, love, and laughter along with serious thoughts, elegant sentences, and always the reminder to do “the right thing” – his absolute guiding principle. 

I was privileged to know Charlie for some three decades and to share time with him on the Board, in travel, and many conversations on ethics, the state of the world, and the importance of PRIM&R. I knew then, and I certainly know now what a giant he was in the field we care so much about. His is truly a great loss.   

Paula Knudson

I was enormously fond of Charlie and will miss him dearly. He was one of the last of the pioneers of human research protection, and his impact cannot be overstated. Personally, I recall with fondness many discussions about the early days, during which he patiently explained development of the Belmont Report within the barren landscape of human research protection that existed in the shadow of Tuskegee, the Beecher Report, and of course, Nuremberg and Helsinki.

I remain inspired by his deep commitment to the field, remaining active well into his 80’s. One of my favorite memories is one I occasionally recite to others as a testament to an indomitable work ethic. In the early 1970’s Charlie was working so hard that he was frequently sleep-deprived. He once woke up as his plane was landing, then directed a taxi driver to a specific address that the driver did not know. Charlie was a bit impatient (a relative term for the most patient of men) with the driver until he realized that he had managed to sleep through the first stop on a plane that made multiple stops. He had intended to get off the plane in Detroit and landed in Dallas (or something similar)!

Charlie’s was a life well lived, and he will be sorely missed.

May his memory be a blessing.

Walter Straus

It has been so wonderful to read all the tributes, to see each of your names appear and to remember what an amazing group of colleagues we all had during the “time of Charlie.” Each of us seems to have a way in which Charlie made us feel special and appreciated. I have so many memories of my own from when I was a young whippersnapper just starting out trying to do empirical research on research ethics all the way through to Charlie’s departure from the PRIM&R board. I’ll share just one memory, the one I hold closest to my heart. During one of our PRIM&R board meetings, I got a message from Charlie asking to meet me in the hotel bar where our board meeting was being held. It was shortly after Charlie’s dear wife, Estelle, died. When we met, Charlie got right to the point. “How did you do it?” he asked. Tears appeared in his eyes, and I understood what he was asking me. “How did you get through it? How did you handle the grief, the loss?” I, too, had lost my spouse. We sat, talked, cried, and held hands. He spoke about how he had watched me navigate the loss of my husband years before and how proud he was of how I handled things and how he thought I had so much strength (I didn’t). This was the first of several of these conversations, and built a bond between us that was strong and unspoken. Thank you all for sharing your memories. It brought back to me this wonderful experience with this amazing man.  

Barbara Stanley