Van Rensselaer Potter: An Intellectual Memoir

Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics 11 (4):331-334 (2002)
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Van Rensselaer Potter was the first voice to utter the word “bioethics,” yet he is too little appreciated by the bioethics community. My expectations for my first visit with Professor Van Rensselaer Potter were primed by conversations with leaders and historians of the field of biomedical ethics, including Warren Reich, Al Jonsen, and David Thomasma. When mentioning my interest in environmental ethics and my concerns for the current state of biomedical ethics, I was told that I must meet Van. On my first visit to Madison, Wisconsin, Van met me at the McArdle Laboratories for Cancer Research at the University of Wisconsin, where he spent essentially his entire academic career as a basic oncological researcher. He was dressed informally and driving a rusting1984 Subaru station wagon with a license plate that read YES ZPG. We spent this first portion of our visit at the Institute where he is an Emeritus Professor and has contributed to understanding cancer metabolism as recognized by his election to the National Academy of Sciences. However, Van felt most at home in his shack located outside Madison. This country retreat included a rather primitive hut surrounded by acres of property owned by the family. I felt at the heart of Van's world when I sat in one of a pair of inexpensive plastic outdoor chairs in a particularly secluded part of the woods on the property, the place where Van himself communed with nature



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