Ernlé Young, co-founder of Stanford Center for Biomedical Ethics, dies at 88

An anti-apartheid activist, humanitarian, theologian, scholar, outdoorsman and skilled woodworker, Young co-founded the Stanford Center for Biomedical Ethics.

- By Patricia Hannon

Ernlé Young, a bioethicist at Stanford Medicine for nearly 40 years, died Feb. 14. 

Ernlé William Dyer Young, PhD, co-founder of the Stanford Center for Biomedical Ethics and a professor emeritus of medicine, died Feb. 14 at his home in Ashland, Oregon. He was 88. 

“As an educator, bioethicist and theologian, Ernlé Young was dedicated to integrating the principles of ethics and equality into medical training and health care,” said Lloyd Minor, MD, dean of the School of Medicine. “His work touched the lives of countless patients, medical students and clinicians, and his impact on Stanford Medicine will be enduring.”

An ethicist at Stanford Medicine for nearly 40 years, Young wrote about and researched ethics in neonatal and intensive care. He’s remembered as a sensitive listener and partner for critically ill patients, families and clinicians grappling with complicated medical and moral decisions. 

“He was a minister, a scholar and a caregiver who was committed to helping patients and their families as part of the health care team,” said Thomas Raffin, MD, the Colleen and Robert Haas Professor in Medicine and Biomedical Ethics, Emeritus, who co-founded the Biomedical Ethics Center with Young in 1989. 

Anti-apartheid activist

Young was born Dec. 14, 1932, in Johannesburg, South Africa. His strong sense of social justice led him to become an anti-apartheid activist and a Methodist minister, said his daughter Heather Young, PhD, RN, founder of the Betty Irene Moore School of Nursing at UC Davis. 

“He had an unwavering North Star for where he had to lead, what needed to be done in the world and what he believed was right, fair and equitable for people,” she said. 

Young earned a bachelor’s degree and master’s degree in divinity from Rhodes University in Grahamstown, South Africa, and a PhD in theological ethics from Southern Methodist University in Texas.

Before and after earning his doctorate, Young was a minister in South Africa. Starting in 1972, he led the Trinity Methodist Church in Bloemfontein and was chairman of a number of churches, all of them segregated by race, he wrote in Unpredictable Journey: A Memoir, which he self-published in 2017. He also authored several books on ethics.

By late 1973, Young faced house arrest for his anti-apartheid activism and efforts to integrate Methodist congregations, so he and his wife, Margaret, decided to return to the United States. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, a Rhodes college friend of Young’s who had just been named the dean of the Stanford Memorial Church, told him about a new three-role position at Stanford: associate dean of Stanford Memorial Church, chaplain to the Stanford University Medical Center and School of Medicine lecturer in medical ethics. Young was soon hired. 

His early work in ethics at Stanford centered on emerging medical technology that could extend life, including interventions that helped babies born prematurely survive. “He was the bridge between the incredible excitement of all the advancements in medicine,” Heather Young said, adding that he asked, “What do we need to do, as humans, as we interact with those advancements?” 

Raffin said that his friendship with Young developed when Young counseled him on complicated cases in the hospital’s intensive care unit in the late 1970s. In 1982, they formed the Stanford University Medical Center ethics committee, which included Stanford experts in law, philosophy, business, economics and medicine. The committee provided a vehicle for patients and their families, nurses, physicians and researchers to weigh such questions as when to withhold or withdraw life support and whether fetal tissue should be used in research. 

A new ethics center

They created Stanford’s Biomedical Ethics Center, one of the first in the country, in 1989 to consolidate campus ethics courses and expand biomedical ethics instruction in the medical school and in medical research. The issues of the day included embryonic stem cell research, cloning and end-of-life care. 

Young’s daughter said that creating the center, which Young co-directed, reflected her father’s “pioneering spirit” and desire to ensure that ethical principles were intrinsic to medical training and patient care decisions.

“I think his goal was to just bring the voices around the table to think about what’s right and reasonable given the situation, the patient’s values, their condition and their goals,” Heather Young said. 

“It wasn’t just a theoretical exercise for him,” she added. “He was one of the best listeners. He was very human, at the bedside with real people, talking with them about their real issues and concerns.”

Young’s daughter said her father valued helping the next generation of clinicians become the best they could be: “He always worked alongside them as they were being exposed to these great new things, and thoughtfully applied the idea that just because we can do something, that doesn’t mean it’s what we should do or have to do.”

Raffin said that Young “had a huge impact on thousands of medical students, residents and fellows, showing them how to listen, to talk in a sensitive way, deal with tough issues and try to get a solution.”

Young retired from Stanford in 2002, at which time NASA recruited him as a consultant to oversee its new Office for the Protection of Research Participants at the Ames Research Center. He retired from NASA in 2013. 

Young told his family he wanted his epitaph to read, “Whatever he did, he did with passion.” Some of those passions were hiking and exploring the mountains, traveling, playing piano and spending time woodworking with his wife. “He made the most beautiful furniture and mementos,” his daughter said. “In the family, we all have his creations to treasure.” 

In addition to Margaret and Heather, Young is survived by daughter Jenny, sons Andrew and Timothy, and their families.

A remembrance gathering at Stanford University will be planned after pandemic restrictions ease. Memorial donations can be made in his name to the Sierra Club. 

An oral history interview with Ernlé Young in 2012 is available through the Stanford Historical Society at this link

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