On March 20, 1997, the McGill community and the international world of bioethics lost an extraordinary scholar, devoted teacher and clinical ethicist, as well as a good friend, with the death of Benjamin Freedman.
Dr. Freedman, aged 45, died four weeks after being diagnosed with metastatic gastric cancer. One of Canada's foremost bioethicists, he produced a large body of work over his 20 years as an academic and clinical ethicist, including six books as author or editor and 121 articles.
His early work on informed consent, competency and making decisions for others won him an international reputation. Some of his most influential work addresses ethical issues in research involving humans. Perhaps the best known of this body of work is his article on "clinical equipoise," published in the New England Journal of Medicine. In that article, he argues that for a clinical trial to be ethical, there must exist a genuine uncertainty within the expert community about the comparative merits of the alternatives being tested.
In 1991, Dr. Freedman and colleagues Abraham Fuks and Stan Shapiro founded the McGill Clinical Trials Research Group, now a part of the Faculty of Medicine's Biomedical Ethics Unit, to expand work in research ethics. They have since been joined by an interdisciplinary group including Charles Weijer, Myriam Skrutkowska, Kathleen Cranley Glass, Trudo Lemmens, Angela Campbell and Louis Charland.
From its inception, the group has operated on the premise that no aspect of research with humans (from formulation of initial hypothesis down to final clinical acceptance) is devoid of ethical significance.
Dr. Freedman's most recent major project was an examination of Judaism and bioethics entitled Duty and Healing: Foundations of a Jewish Bioethic, in which he distinguishes between the mainstream concern for individual rights and the Jewish emphasis on duty.
Dr. Freedman chose an unusual route for disseminating his book; he "published" it on the Internet (http://ww2.mcgill.ca/ctrg/bfreed/). And he was delighted with the results. For him, publishing "on the net" had advantages. Among other things, it made the work accessible free of charge to people all over the world, regardless of the availability of scholarly journals or university libraries.
The book was particularly important for Dr. Freedman, who found the challenge of reconciling duty and rights a constant theme in his work as clinical ethicist at the Jewish General Hospital. Some of our fondest memories of Benjy come from the informal "brown bag" lunch sessions where students and colleagues joined him in discussing anything from a complicated clinical ethics case, to a point of interpretation in Jewish law or halahka, to the latest science fiction TV show (he was an avid sci-fi fan), to a piece of personal news about his family.
For many of us in the bioethics community, he was at the same time mentor and friend, with an uncompromising approach to his role as intellectual critic.
Benjamin Freedman was much more than a brilliant scholar, prolific writer and man of memorable wit and humour. He leaves those of us who knew him a rich and enduring legacy of his passion for justice and intolerance for hypocrisy, his unbounded love and devotion to his family and loyalty to friends, and a religious faith that even those who did not share it could not help but admire. He was above all a very warm and humane individual, who demanded from colleagues what he demanded from himself--ethical conduct.
Kathleen Cranley Glass and the Clinical Trials Research Group