In a 1968 Report, the Ad Hoc Committee of the Harvard Medical School to Examine the Definition of Brain Death promulgated influential criteria for the idea and practice known as “brain death.” Before and since the Committee met, brain death has been a focal point of visions and nightmares of medical progress, purpose, and moral authority. Critics of the Committee felt it was deaf to apparently central moral considerations and focused on the self-serving purpose of expanding transplantation. Historical characterizations of the uses and meanings of brain death and the work of the Committee have tended to echo these themes, which means also generally repeating a widely held bioethical self-understanding of how the field appeared—that is, as a necessary antidote of moral expertise. This paper looks at the Committee and finds that historical depictions of it have been skewed by such a bioethical agenda. Entertaining different possibilities as to the motives and historical circumstances behind the Report it famously produced may point to not only different histories of the Committee, but also different perspectives on the historical legacy and role of bioethics as a discourse for addressing anxieties about medicine.


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pp. 325-361
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