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Remembering David Rothman, a Liberator and Pioneer

The Open Society Foundations mourn the death of a treasured adviser and colleague, David Rothman, the Bernard Schoenberg Professor of Social Medicine and Professor of History at Columbia University, who died of cancer on August 31, 2020. 

Rothman played a seminal role in some of the Open Society Foundations’ most ambitious efforts. He was a participant, in 1993, in the meeting that led to the establishment of the Project on Death in America, a nine-year initiative of the Open Society Foundations that had the goal of helping to transform the culture of dying in the United States. In 1996, Rothman participated in the meeting that established what is now Open Society-U.S., and long served on the board of that program, in addition to the boards of the Project on Death in America and the Public Health Program.

Rothman was instrumental in shaping Open Society’s legacy of work on the deinstitutionalization of people with disabilities. Drawing on his landmark historical works, such as The Discovery of the Asylum and The Willowbrook Warswhich he coauthored with his wife Sheila Rothman—he advised Open Society on the creation of an initiative that helped to liberate thousands of people from involuntary confinement in long-stay institutions.

One of Rothman’s most enduring legacies is the creation of the Institute on Medicine as a Profession at Columbia University, which Open Society's founder and chair, George Soros, endowed. Spurred by a deep commitment to ethics and professionalism in the medical field, the Institute on Medicine as a Profession, under Rothman’s leadership, trained generations of physicians to become advocates for policy change. This legacy has particular significance as we confront the policy challenges of the global COVID-19 pandemic. 

Rothman brought to all of these endeavors an infectious creative spark, strategic wisdom, and sense of humor. He believed in the highest ideals of the medical profession and worked tirelessly to nurture these ideals in students and clinicians. He gave selflessly of his time, advice, and vast networks to help colleagues succeed.

David Rothman
David Rothman, Bernard Schoenberg Professor of Social Medicine and Professor of History, was the director of the Center for the Study of Science and Medicine at Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons. He was the founder of the Institute on Medicine as a Profession, an Open Society offshoot dedicated to promoting medical professionalism as a field of study and a force for change. Courtesy of Columbia University

A scholar-advocate of the highest order, Rothman wrote on subjects as diverse as medical enhancement, prisons and closed institutions, medical ethics, and health policy reform. He combined this vast scholarship with policy endeavors related to the human genome, trafficking of organs, organ transplant, and clinical trials, among others. He challenged practices that infringed on the liberty and autonomy of patients while placing medical professionals in ethical crises. He took time to mentor young physicians and help them find their voice as advocates for a better world.

Those of us who had the privilege of working with David Rothman owe our own success to his brilliance and generosity. We send our deepest condolences to Mrs. Rothman, his children, and the entire Rothman family.

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