September 23, 2020

In Memoriam: Renée Fox

We write with the sad news that our dear colleague and beloved friend, Renée Fox, died today at the age of 92. The cause of death was leukemia, which came on very suddenly. We take some solace in knowing that during her last days she was comfortable, and that she was with family and friends.

Renée, as those who know her well can attest, was an incomparable intellect and life force -- truly sui generis. She joined the Sociology Department at Penn in 1969, after earning her PhD from Radcliffe College at Harvard and teaching at Barnard College for twelve years. Already a distinguished interdisciplinary scholar, Renée was also appointed to the Departments of Medicine and Psychiatry. Her entrance at the level of full professor was significant and put her in the company of a very small cadre of female professors across the university.

Renée loved field work. In the 1950s, she began a career that established and shaped, over a span of more than 50 years, the field of medical sociology. Her classic works -- and there are many -- such as the anatomy course autopsy and attitude formation of medical students, or training for uncertainty, or Experiment Perilous, The Courage to Fail (researched and written with Judith Swazey), Spare Parts (ditto), or Doctor's Without Boarder -- are all still touchstones of incisive and illuminating scholarship, often as relevant today as they were when first written.

Renee also loved teaching. We both benefited from Renée's pedagogical gifts, as did countless others, from undergraduates to graduate students, from medical and nursing students to just about every other type of student one can imagine. Renée was always a critical thinker and reader, pushing for those under her tutelage to be clearer and conceptually deeper -- and also a cheerleader, urging us onward and celebrating every accomplishment.

Renée also loved her family and friends. She took great joy in others.

Regarding bioethics, Renée was both a founder and persistent critic of the field. She did not consider herself a bioethicist, but her keen moral insights about the medical enterprise and her penchant for vigorous ethical argument tell a different story. Being both an insider and outsider enabled her to shed light on the innards of our field, questioning research methods and priorities, and always challenging bioethics scholars to return to the basics of seeking justice in an unjust world.

She will be dearly missed.

Both the Department of Sociology and the the Department of Medical Ethics and Health Policy at Penn are in the early stages of planning a memorial remembrance ceremony, which will be conducted via some form of web-based gathering, in the coming weeks. We will share details as soon as they are available.

-Chris Feudtner, Dominic Sisti

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