Berman Institute’s new home cements a place for bioethics at Johns Hopkins

Deering Hall to debut during university-wide commemoration of Bioethics Week, May 9 to 13

Bioethicists sat next to NGO leaders and military officers in a newly furnished, high-tech conference room in the first permanent home for the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics. There, 25 participants discussed the ethical dilemmas that arise when limited care can be provided during disasters, such as last year’s Haitian earthquake and Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

The husband-wife team of Thomas Kirsch, an emergency medicine specialist who participated in triage in Haiti after the quake, and Margaret Moon, a pediatrician and bioethicist, both faculty members at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, led the weighty discussion. Meanwhile, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Sheri Fink joined in from Bellagio, Italy, via videoconference—seen back in Baltimore through sleek plasma screens mounted at opposite ends of the conference room.

Fink won journalism’s top award for her powerful investigative piece on the euthanizing of patients in Memorial Medical Center in New Orleans, who were trapped by floodwaters after the hurricane. And because of the state-of-the-art conference room in the Berman Institute’s new building, Fink was able to participate with just a few taps of a touch screen.

“The videoconferencing feature was amazing. We connected with our colleague in Italy without a hitch. She was present and participating throughout the meeting,” said Moon, the Freeman Family Scholar in Medical Clinical Ethics at the Berman Institute. “It was seamless, easy and reliable—opening up a whole new dimension of possibilities for national and international collaboration.”

Since at least 1977, when the late Prof. Philip Franklin Wagley delivered the first lecture on medical ethics to Hopkins medical students, bioethics has had a place at the university. And this month, the university will recognize the importance of the multidisciplinary field in biomedical research, clinical care and public health by designating May 9 to 13 as Bioethics Week.

That week, a series of special events will be held throughout campus, beginning with a noontime lecture on May 9 by Susan Reverby, the Wellesley University professor who recently uncovered unethical experiments conducted by U.S. health officials in the late 1940s that involved infecting Guatemalan prisoners with syphilis and other sexually transmitted diseases.

Reverby, one of the nation’s leading Tuskegee historians, will also give a public talk later that day in East Baltimore. Then, on May 12, Joshua Sharfstein, who stepped down as the FDA’s principal deputy commissioner and now serves as Maryland’s Secretary of Health and Mental Hygiene, will deliver a talk at the Armstrong Medical Education Building, titled “Striking the Right Balance: The Ethics of Political Leadership of Scientific Agencies.”

For the Berman Institute, the centerpiece of Bioethics Week will be an open house on Tuesday, May 10, when members of the Hopkins community are invited to drop by from 5 to 7 p.m. The building, on the northwestern edge of the medical campus, is located on Ashland Avenue, between Wolfe Street and North Broadway, and has been named “Deering Hall,” after longtime supporters Lynn Deering, one of the leaders of the Institute’s National Advisory Board, and her husband, University Trustee Tony Deering.

“We are just so grateful, and at the same time, invigorated to finally have a place we can call home,” said Berman Institute Director Ruth Faden, the Philip Franklin Wagley Professor of Biomedical Ethics at Hopkins. “With its historical significance and modern features, Deering Hall stands as an altogether unique place that will catalyze collaboration among our faculty and engagement with the rest of the university.”

Recognized by the Maryland Historical Trust, the 11,000-square-foot building originally served as a police station in 1876. Glimpses of its former life remain: Heavy cutaways of the original radiator that once warmed handlebar-mustached cops now hang as wall art just inside the main entrance. And at the building’s southeast corner, an attached, garage-size structure that serves as flex space for Ph.D. students, interns and bioethics trainees is nicknamed after its original charge: the “carriage house.”

The Berman Institute consists of more than 30 core and affiliated faculty members, many with appointments in the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, the Bloomberg School of Public Health, the School of Nursing, and the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences. Since the Institute’s founding in 1995, faculty have published well over 1,000 articles and more than a dozen books on subjects ranging from informed consent and neuroethics, to umbilical cord blood banking and tube feeding the advanced elderly.

The Institute also employs a staff of 27, who are vital to its goal of contributing sophisticated scholarship on the ethics of clinical practice, biomedical science and public health—both globally and locally.

Ashland Ave building 1

Prior to the Berman Institute’s move into its new home, its faculty and staff were scattered throughout the city and Hopkins institutions. The lack of a brick-and-mortar home sometimes presented challenges for monthly staff meetings, collaboration among faculty and, more broadly, hindered communication and camaraderie.

“Deering Hall will be a great home for bioethics at Hopkins,” said Moon, an assistant professor of general pediatrics and adolescent medicine. “The dedicated space will deepen the connections within our own ethics community, while establishing a stronger sense of identity for bioethics as an important part of the larger Hopkins universe.”

~ Michael Pena

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Michael Pena

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