Charles M. Culver, MD, PhD, 1934-2015

One of the founders of US bioethics 

Charles M Culver“Chuck,” as he was known, and his longtime friend and collaborator Prof. Bernard Gert, helped establish the Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center Ethics program in the mid-1970s and, later, the Mary Hitchcock Memorial Hospital Ethics Committee, one of the first in the country. It has been described as one of the country’s first fully operational ethics committees. Dr. Culver was the committee’s first chair, succeeded by Dr. James Bernat, the Dartmouth neurologist. 

Drs. Culver and Gert, along with Prof. K. Danner Clouser, Dr. Bill Nelson and Dr. Bernat, did much important work in bioethics starting in the 1970s, including key papers and books on ethics in the medical curriculum, the definition of death, ethics committees and ethics consultation, incompetence, moral theory, the philosophy of medicine and valid consent. (For a PubMed list of his articles; a list of his books appears below.)

Dr. Culver was trained at Duke University as a neuropsychologist and physician; he did his residency in psychiatry at Mary Hitchcock Memorial Hospital. He was a fellow of The Hastings Center, perhaps the world’s leading bioethics organization.

He settled in Miami after a Fulbright fellowship in Uruguay. In Miami, he held a voluntary appointment in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Science at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, and worked extensively with the Miller School’s Institute for Bioethics and Health Policy. He was Professor of Medical Education at the School of Graduate Medical Sciences, Barry University, and Associate Director of Barry University’s Physician Assistant Program.

Indeed, it was Culver’s idea – more than a quarter-century ago – for the program to hold an annual conference. The 27th annual “Florida Bioethics: Debates, Decisions, Solutions” conference was held April 12, 2019, in Miami. It is believed to the oldest and largest community bioethics conference in the world.

His work in South America and collaborations with the UM bioethics community also helped fledge the UM program’s work on the continent, and led to decades of collaboration around the hemisphere.

Dr. Culver’s contributions to the medical ethics curriculum and the evolution of hospital ethics committees cannot be overstated. He was first author on a landmark 1985 New England Journal of Medicine article, “Basic Curricular goals in medical ethics,” which helped spark recognition of the importance of ethics in the education of medical students.

According to the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center Website, The Mary Hitchcock Memorial Hospital (MHMH) Ethics Committee “was among the first fully functioning hospital ethics committees in the United States. In the 1980s, its consultation service became integrated into the clinical and teaching activities of the hospital. Professors Charles Culver and Bernard Gert, both of whom served on the committee, wrote an early textbook on medical ethics and several scholarly articles about clinical ethics and moral theory. The Ethics Committee sponsored numerous educational seminars including a national conference on the teaching of medical ethics attended by academics from leading American medical schools.

“During the 1980s, the MHMH Ethics Committee was active politically in promoting state laws improving ethical patient care. The Committee was instrumental in the New Hampshire state legislature enacting the Terminal Care Document and the Durable Power of Attorney for Health Care acts….

“[T]he Committee also was active in helping community hospitals in New Hampshire and Vermont to establish their ethics committees. The V.A. Medical Center in White River Junction, VT, began its ethics committee in 1980. The program grew to be so successful that, in 1991, they were awarded the contract for the V.A. National Center for Clinical Ethics.”

Prof. Clouser died in 2000 and Prof. Gert in 2011. With Dr. Culver’s death “passed a team that made incomparable contributions to bioethics education and literature for more than three decades,” according to a homage in a forthcoming book by one of Dr. Culver’s friends.

Dr. Culver was born November 7, 1934, in Akron, Ohio, and died February 24, 2015, at St. Anne’s Nursing Center in south Miami-Dade County. He is survived by his wife of 23 years, Dr. Marta Failde; their son, Martin; and Vicky, Lissy and Michelle, daughters by a previous marriage.

Books by Charles M. Culver

  • Culver, Charles M, Editor, Ethics at the Bedside. Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 1990.
  • Gert, Bernard, Berger, Edward M., Cahill, George F., Jr., Clouser, K. Danner, Culver, Charles M., Moeschler, John B., and Singer, George H.S. Morality and the New Genetics. Portola Valley, CA: Jones and Bartlett, 1996.
  • Gert, Bernard, Culver, Charles M., and Clouser, K. Danner.  Bioethics:  A Return to Fundamentals.  New York:  Oxford University Press,  1997.
  • Gert, Bernard, Culver, Charles M. and Clouser, K. Danner.  Bioethics:  A Systematic Approach.  New York:  Oxford University Press.  This book is in part a revision and second edition of Bioethics:  A Return to Fundamentals.  It was published by Oxford in 2006.