Arthur O. Anderson M.D. [B.S. Biology '66]
College Honorary Doctorate 16 May 2003
and Honorees, United States Senator Schumer, NY State Senator Marchi, Members of the Board of Trustees, President and Mrs. Guarasci, Chaplain Guttu, Members
of the Faculty, Ladies and Gentlemen, I am deeply honored to join you, the
class of 2003, as you mark this milestone in your lives, and commence on paths
that will take you into the world and define your place in it.
As you conclude
your years as students of Wagner College, your time spent here will remain as
significant throughout your lives as it is today; and as it remains for me
thirty seven years after graduation from Wagner.
Thank you for bestowing on me this honor. I am not a
celebrity, a prizewinner or a doer of conspicuous deeds. My lifetime achievement, which you have just
heard described, can be traced to beginnings at Wagner. I received the best moral education to
prepare me for medical school, scientific research and responsibilities in applied ethics, culminating in my present position as Chief of the Office of Human Use and Ethics at the Army’s Biological Warfare Defense Laboratory.
My Biology professor, Dr. Ralph E Deal also provided moral
education in his Histology course. One of the lessons he taught was that some anatomic structures described in the textbooks are not always present. During practical exams each tissue structure
correctly identified earned one point. Two points were subtracted if we claimed to be able to see a structure that the textbook told us should be there, but was intentionally not included in the sample for the exam. This lesson emphasized observational
integrity that became important to my future in research. It also required
moral courage to say you did not see what your text or scientific authorities
said should be seen.
Wagner’s liberal arts curriculum enabled me to accomplish my
educational goals and encouraged me to broaden my vision. I enrolled in
required courses offered in the Religion and Philosophy department. It amazed
me how studying philosophy liberated me from the dogmas at home, freed me of my
own prejudices and gave me tools I could use for making ethical decisions.
My education continued outside the classroom through
conversations with my friend and classmate Fred Sickert. We often bounced issues
off each other to see how they squared with the precepts of different
And, I participated in “Faith and Life Week”, a campus-wide
symposium on ethical decision-making, where participants analyzed the
relationships of Intentions to Actions, and of Actions to
their Consequences. Careful analysis of the alternatives can identify
actions that yield remarkably different results, results that can produce
success with less negative consequences if you make the right choices.
At the University of Maryland School of Medicine, Ethics was
not a part of medical curriculum in the 1960s so I found that raising ethical
questions was challenging to my professors, but my asking did no harm.
During Pathology training at Johns Hopkins, I also raised concerns
about patients who had come to autopsy after failing fruitless long-term
treatments that forced them to live out their final days in the hospital.
Today, medical students are taught ethics, hospitals have
ethics committees to assist families in making just and ethical choices about
end of life decisions but failures of research ethics still appear on the front
As my postdoctoral training at Johns Hopkins was nearing
completion, my basic research in immunology was taking off. I had made several new discoveries related to how the cells of the immune system move around the body and I wanted to continue with this research. I had a prior obligation to go on active duty in the Army as soon as I completed my training so taking a faculty position had to wait.
The US Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious
Diseases at Fort Detrick was a place where I could serve my obligation and also
continue doing research. Some of you may recognize the acronym USAMRIID (pronounced Use Am Rid), it has been in the news, novels and movies after
publication of the Hot Zone, by Richard Preston. The institute develops
diagnostics, drugs and vaccines to defend against biowarfare; and, more
USAMRIID has a research program where human subjects serve
as volunteers in protocols to test safety and utility of vaccines and
drugs. In 1975 I heard some details
about a study involving human volunteers that I thought was too risky for the
value of the information that might be learned. I mustered the moral courage to march into the commander’s office
and inform him
that I thought it would be a terrible mistake to do that study.
Rather than being shown the door, the commander respectfully
considered my concerns and put the study on hold. The next time I spoke with
him he appointed me the first chair of the “USAMRIID Human Use Committee”. It would be my committee’s responsibility to
decide whether or not protocols should be approved and carried out. I had been given a huge responsibility that
had predictably huge consequences.
Over the 28 years that I held this responsibility, there
have been no deaths or injuries and our Project Whitecoat volunteers speak affirmatively about
the respectful and ethical environment in which these studies were carried out.
It didn’t occur to me right away that the decisions I made, leading to our
stellar record for protecting the rights, safety and welfare of volunteer
subjects, had their origins at Wagner College. The required philosophy courses
were valuable credentials that served as my unseen partner in all these
In accepting this honorary degree – I wish to tell you – how
lucky I was to be a student at Wagner, to be liberated by my education to think
independently and to have been given such a good start in life.
I wish all of you the most success. I am confident that in
years to come you will be able to return to Wagner College and tell similar
stories of success, moral courage and ethical behavior as you move on into your