Institute for Bioethics and Health Humanities

By: Margarita M. Ortiz

Type: General Entry

Published: August 31, 2021

Updated: August 31, 2021

The Institute for Bioethics and Health Humanities, part of the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston (UTMB) and located in UTMB’s Ewing Hall, is a “teaching and research center that focuses the lens of the humanities disciplines on medical practice, biomedical research, and health policy” and was founded in June 1973 as the Institute for the Medical Humanities (IMH). It represented the second medical humanities teaching program in a United States medical school (the first was at Pennsylvania State University College of Medicine) and the first of its kind to have a graduate program in the medical humanities. At its inception, the new teaching program was intended to enrich the humanities curriculum beyond the medical history, ethics, and jurisprudence already offered by the UTMB School of Medicine (SOM). Through the SOM’s Preventive Medicine and Community Health Department (now the Preventive Medicine and Population Health Department), its multidisciplinary and internationally-acclaimed faculty remained committed to medical student and graduate student education and interdisciplinary collaborative research in diverse areas of the humanities and biomedicine where issues of medical morality are involved.

The mission of the IMH included “teaching future physicians how to be more caring, empathic and aware of themselves, their colleagues, and their patients, as uniquely valuable individuals and as products of their own cultural [influences].” Inclusively, the IMH offered a medical humanities track for medical students interested in a more in-depth exploration of the interdisciplinary medical humanities beyond the reach of its inclusion in the SOM’s curriculum,  

In addition to graduate teaching and research,  IMH faculty lectured nationally and internationally, provided an ethics consultation service, hosted fellows and visiting scholars, and participated in and organized lectures and symposia. Past IMH faculty represented diverse fields, including philosophy, history, law, religion, literature, art and anthropology, and later expanded the focus to include more bioethics and health perspectives.

The origins of the Institute for Bioethics and Health Humanities (as the Institute for the Medical Humanities) can be traced to the materialization of pharmacologist and author Chauncey Leake’s 1952 plan for a Department of Legal and Cultural Medicine. A type of unofficial early interdisciplinary program at UTMB slowly emerged, with faculty within the Department of Preventive Medicine and Public Health appointed to teach philosophy and ethics, history and philosophy of medicine, and with visiting lecturers addressing religion and history. Under the UTMB leadership of CEO Truman Blocker and Dean Joseph White, in 1965 UTMB established a medical history professorship followed by the 1969 inception of the History of Medicine Division, to which Dr. Chester Burns was invited and appointed to direct. Between 1969 and 1973 the History of Medicine Division transitioned into the IMH.

Burns’s directorship of the new History of Medicine Division anchored the development of the IMH. Jointly with Episcopalian chaplain Gammon Jarrell and physician-philosopher Tristram Engelhardt, Jr., a teaching program was established in 1973. In June 1973 the University of Texas Regents granted the request to recognize the Institute for Medical Humanities. It was first housed in UTMB’s Kieller Building. Physician William Bean was appointed first director in June 1974. After former recognition the IMH began developing as an interdisciplinary institution and established itself in interdisciplinary circles with the coordination of the Southwest Regional Institute on Human Values, the organization of the transdisciplinary symposium on philosophy and medicine, and assumption of the role as editor of Humanities and Medicine, a robust issue of the Texas Report of Biology and Medicine in spring 1974.

In May 1974 the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) granted UTMB a five-year grant to support the academic development of the IMH. The grant supported, in part, the expansion of faculty, humanities curriculum in the Preventive Medicine and Population Health Department, the creation of medical humanities electives, lectureships in a diversity of humanities perspectives, and continuing medical education efforts. From its inception, the IMH has continued to receive funding to support its educational program from the state, private donors, foundations, and grants.

By 1979 the IMH’s mission was to provide a “historical lineage” of the medical profession, an educational program in which “no single field should dominate” the medical humanities curriculum. Its priorities were: to illuminate medical perspective by integrating a multi-disciplinary humanities perspective; to research using humanities’ methods; to enrich the curriculum of the SOM beyond ethics and jurisprudence; to provide ethics on scientific research; and to provide even more diversity of perspective, as well as cultural diversity, by providing a public forum for and research facilities to fellows and visiting scholars.

The institute was moved to the historic Ashbel Smith Building (“Old Red”) after that structure’s renovation in 1985. In 1988 the institute became the first to offer a graduate program in the medical humanities and the only to offer a doctorate in the field. By this time, the faculty members represented the fields of philosophy, history, literature and medicine, law, art, health policy, religion, ethics, and anthropology.

Past publications include the Medical Humanities Review, a publication of book reviews and essays on a range of topics dealing with medicine and the humanities; Literature and Medicine, a Johns Hopkins University Press publication; the Medical Humanities Chronicle, a newsletter about IMH happenings; Medical Humanities Rounds; and Aging and the Human Spirit. Faculty at the institute also edit The Texas Medical Jurisprudence Examination: A Self-Study Guide.

In 2020 IMH director Dr. Campo-Engelstein spearheaded an effort for a new name to reflect the institutional change of focus and curricula to health humanities and bioethics. In 2021 the Institute for the Medical Humanities became the Institute for Bioethics and Health Humanities, and a new degree program and requirements went into effect with its inaugural class in fall 2021.  The proposed curriculum change included core classes in aspects of health, a broader focus than medicine, and included as its core the following classes: Introduction to Health Humanities, Foundations of Bioethics, Interdisciplinary Methods in Bioethics and Health Humanities, and Landmark Health Cases and Movements. Electives reflected the role of health in several aspects of scientific research, clinical science, ethics, law, and humanities. The IBHH continues to run UTMB’s Institutional Ethics Program, a program that includes the Clinical Ethics Consultation Service, the Integrated Ethics Program, the Institutional Ethics Committee, and the Research Ethics Consultation Service.  

Through the years grant funding has facilitated the sponsorship of lectureship series, honoring their namesakes for their work or interest in the medical humanities. Among some were the Marcel Patterson Memorial Lectureship in the Medical Humanities, the John P. McGovern Lecture in the Medical Humanities, the Sam G. Dunn Lectureship in Medicine and The Humanities, the Leake Lectures, the Courtney M. Townsend Lectureship in Medical Ethics, the Edgar H. and Lillye Mae Vaughn Lectureship in Medical Philosophy and Morality, and several seminars of the Robert and Russell Moody Lecture series.

Chester R. Burns, “A Journey in the Borderlands of Medicine and the Humanities,” Medical Humanities Review 15 (Fall 2001). Chester R. Burns, Saving Lives, Training Caregivers, Making Discoveries: A Centennial History of The University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston (Austin: Texas State History Association, 2002). Institute for Bioethics & Health Humanities (, accessed August 22, 2021. Anne Hudson Jones and Ronald A. Carson, “Medical Humanities at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston,” Academic Medicine 78 (October 2013). The UTMB Strategic Plan—Institutional Vision 2021–2025 (, accessed August 22, 2021.

  • Education
  • Medical Schools and Teaching Hospitals
  • Health and Medicine
Time Periods:
  • Texas Post World War II
  • Texas in the 21st Century
  • East Texas
  • Upper Gulf Coast
  • Galveston

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Margarita M. Ortiz, “Institute for Bioethics and Health Humanities,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed July 01, 2022,

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

August 31, 2021
August 31, 2021

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