The best medical ethics books

2 authors have picked their favorite books about medical ethics and why they recommend each book.

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You Can Stop Humming Now

By Daniela Lamas,

Book cover of You Can Stop Humming Now: A Doctor's Stories of Life, Death, and in Between

Lamas, an ICU physician in Boston and New York Times guest columnist, has a distinctive gift for rendering the stories of her patients in three dimensions. Lamas is the Oliver Sachs of the ICU, exploring the ethical and emotional challenges of critical illness with eloquence and insight. By focusing on the personal elements of critical care, rather than the technological ones, she renders the complex experience of ICU patients vivid and indelible.   


Who am I?

As a physician and attorney, I’ve always been fascinated by the nexus where my two professions meet.   During the course of my career, I have been asked to advise colleagues on topics as far-reaching as whether a death row inmate should receive an organ transplant to how to offer psychotherapy ethically to a conjoined twin. Although questions like these do not arise every day, even the everyday questions in my field – on such topics as confidentiality, boundaries, and informed consent – never grow old.


I wrote...

Who Says You're Dead? Medical & Ethical Dilemmas for the Curious & Concerned

By Jacob M. Appel,

Book cover of Who Says You're Dead? Medical & Ethical Dilemmas for the Curious & Concerned

What is my book about?

Drawing upon the author’s decades teaching medical ethics and his work as a practicing physician, this book of challenging ethical dilemmas asks readers, What would you do?

A daughter gets tested to see if she’s a match to donate a kidney to her father. The test reveals that she isn’t the man’s biological daughter. Should the doctor tell them? A deaf couple prefers a deaf baby. Should they be allowed to use medical technology to ensure they have a child who can’t hear? Who should get custody of an embryo created through IVF when a couple divorces? Or, when you or a loved one is on life support, Who says you’re dead? In short, engaging scenarios, Dr. Appel takes on hot-button issues in medical ethics.

Strangers at the Bedside

By David J. Rothman,

Book cover of Strangers at the Bedside: A History of How Law and Bioethics Transformed Medical Decision Making

Rothman was one of the first to examine the culture of research medicine and its relationship to science and American culture at large. Doctors on the cutting edge of new procedures, much desired medical elixirs, and scientific advancement used a utilitarian calculus to determine what was ethical and what the public was willing to accept. Scientific breakthroughs were celebrated with few - certainly no one of renown - taking notice that the breakthroughs were coming at the expense of vulnerable, powerless populations.


Who am I?

I began working in prisons 50 years ago. I was just out of grad school and I accepted the challenge of starting a literacy program in the Philadelphia Prison System. The shock of cellblock life was eye-opening, but the most unexpected revelation was the sight of scores of inmates wrapped in bandages and medical tape. Unknown to the general public, the three city prisons had become a lucrative appendage of the University of Pennsylvania’s Medical School. As I would discover years later, thousands of imprisoned Philadelphians had been used in a cross-section of unethical and dangerous scientific studies running the gamut from simple hair dye and athlete’s foot trials to radioactive isotope, dioxin, and US Army chemical warfare studies. My account of the prison experiments, Acres of Skin, helped instill in me an abiding faith in well-researched journalism as an antidote to societal indiscretions and crimes.


I wrote...

Against Their Will: The Secret History of Medical Experimentation on Children in Cold War America

By Allen M. Hornblum, Judith L. Newman, Gregory J. Dober

Book cover of Against Their Will: The Secret History of Medical Experimentation on Children in Cold War America

What is my book about?

This groundbreaking book explores the underbelly of American medicine, the sordid history of scientific researchers using developmentally impaired children in overcrowded and underfunded state institutions as raw material for medical research. Against Their Will documents how thousands of children in hospitals, orphanages, and other public asylums became unwilling subjects in countless experimental studies during the 20th century.

The Soul of Care

By Arthur Kleinman,

Book cover of The Soul of Care: The Moral Education of a Husband and a Doctor

Professor and psychiatrist Arthur Kleinman’s The Soul of Care movingly explicates the practical, emotional, and moral aspects of caregiving. Based on Kleinman’s experiences as the primary caregiver for his late wife Joan after she developed early-onset Alzheimer’s disease, this book skillfully reveals caregiving – however grueling, however much about enduring the unendurable – as resonating with emotional, moral, and, for many, religious meaning, and ultimately enabling us to realize our humanity most fully. Moreover, inspired by the work of Anne-Marie Slaughter, Kleinman poignantly argues for the importance of recognizing care as a basic human right.

Who am I?

Karen Thornber is Harry Tuchman Levin Professor in Literature and Professor of East Asian Languages and Civilizations at Harvard. Her work brings humanistic insights to global challenges.  Thornber is the author of the award-winning scholarly books Empire of Texts in Motion and Ecoambiguity as well as most recently Global Healing: Literature, Advocacy, Care. Current projects include books on gender justice in Asia, mental health, inequality/injustice, sustainability/climate change, and indigeneity.

I wrote...

Global Healing: Literature, Advocacy, Care

By Karen Laura Thornber,

Book cover of Global Healing: Literature, Advocacy, Care

What is my book about?

Global Healing reveals just how much of the suffering experienced by individuals with adverse health conditions comes not from the health conditions themselves but instead from how people are treated by society, medical and health professionals, and even friends and family members. Far from being integrated into communities of care where they are treated respectfully and in ways that promote healing and enable wellbeing, individuals with adverse health conditions are all too frequently stigmatized, dehumanized, and silenced. This is particularly true of people who are already subjected to structural violence because of their age, class, ethnicity, gender, race, religion, sexuality, or other factors. Global Healing is especially relevant as we emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Adoration of Jenna Fox

By Mary E. Pearson,

Book cover of The Adoration of Jenna Fox

Jenna Fox wakes from a year-long coma after a terrible accident and tries to figure out who she is now. This is a book with futuristic medicine and technology, but the feelings and emotions are universal. Jenna’s struggle to find out the truth about her past, and her place in the present make this one of my very favorite books, which I’ve read and reread many times.


Who am I?

I went into foster care at nine months old, was adopted three years later, and as an adult I was reunited with five siblings I never knew I had. I’ve spent my whole life wondering or searching for the truths about my past. 


I wrote...

The Name She Gave Me

By Betty Culley,

Book cover of The Name She Gave Me

What is my book about?

Rynn was born with a hole in her heart—literally. Although it was fixed long ago, she still feels an emptiness there when she wonders about her birth family. As her relationship with her adoptive mother fractures, Rynn finally decides she needs to know more about the rest of her family. Her search starts with a name, the only thing she has from her birth mother, and she quickly learns that she has a younger sister living in foster care in a nearby town. But if Rynn reconnects with her biological sister, it may drive her adoptive family apart for good.

This powerful story uncovers both beautiful and heartbreaking truths and explores how challenging, yet healing, family can be.

"On Second Thought" and Other Essays in the History of Medicine and Science

By Owsei Temkin,

Book cover of "On Second Thought" and Other Essays in the History of Medicine and Science

This series of essays by a humane physician-historian who first attracted me to medical history examines basic ideas in medicine across centuries and cultures. Published when the author was almost a hundred, it raises important questions about medical ethics and the place of medicine in society from the Greeks onwards.


Who am I?

Vivian Nutton is an emeritus professor of the History of Medicine at UCL and has written extensively on the pre-modern history of medicine. He has lectured around the world and held posts in Cambridge and Moscow as well as the USA. His many books include editions and translations of Galen as well as a major survey of Greek and Roman Medicine, and he is currently writing a history of medicine in the Late Renaissance.


Galen: A Thinking Doctor in Imperial Rome

By Vivian Nutton,

Book cover of Galen: A Thinking Doctor in Imperial Rome

Galen of Pergamum, a Greek doctor in ancient Rome, is a fascinating figure, doctor to several Roman Emperors, a prolific writer, an overbearing egotist, a medical genius, an acute observer, and intelligent thinker, whose influence lasted for a millennium and a half. I have tried to explain the complexities of a man whose writings still provoke admiration or dissent, but rarely allow neutrality.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

By Rebecca Skloot,

Book cover of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

There is a wonderful world of science writing out there, and this book is a great entry into that world. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is part science journalism, science history, and biography. Skloot introduced the world to Henrietta Lacks, a previously unknown woman whose cells have been responsible for some of the leading research and advances in medicine. In introducing the story of Lacks, Skloot, with obvious affection for both Lacks and her descendants, poses a number of important questions regarding race, ethics, and medical research.


Who am I?

I am a writer, researcher, and sometimes curator and I have a passion for history and great storytelling. While my own research has focused on the First World War, I have worked on exhibits and reports on a wide array of topics. I continue to be inspired by new ways of understanding and depicting history, and especially by the work of fellow women writers and historians. This short list is a glimpse into some of my favourite works of non-fiction writing out there that has been produced by women and that have inspired me.


I wrote...

Death or Deliverance: Canadian Courts Martial in the Great War

By Teresa Iacobelli,

Book cover of Death or Deliverance: Canadian Courts Martial in the Great War

What is my book about?

Soldiers found guilty of desertion or cowardice during the Great War faced death by firing squad. Novels, histories, movies, and television series often depict courts-martial as brutal and inflexible, and social memories of this system of frontline justice have inspired modern movements to seek pardons for soldiers executed on the battlefield. In this powerful and moving book, Teresa Iacobelli looks beyond stories of callous generals and quick executions to consider the trials of nearly two hundred soldiers who were sentenced to death but spared by a disciplinary system capable of thoughtful review and compassion.

By bringing to light these men’s experiences, Death or Deliverance reconsiders an important chapter in the history of both a war and a nation.

Experimentation with Human Beings

By Jay Katz, Alexander Morgan, Eleanor Swift Glass

Book cover of Experimentation with Human Beings: The Authority of the Investigator, Subject, Professions, and State in the Human Experimentation Process

Known only to true devotees of medical ethics and the history of human research, Jay Katz’s hefty volume (1,150 pages) is a comprehensive encyclopedia of humans used as research material. Information-packed chapters cover everything from Chester Southam’s use of senile hospital patients in cancer cell injection studies during the 1960s, and the legal fallout from such indiscretions, to the ethical obligations of researchers, and the evolution of informed consent as a pillar of ethical human research. Impressive in both detail and scope, this imposing piece of scholarship is a valuable resource for anyone looking to learn the many moral and legal issues inherent in experimenting on humans. 


Who am I?

I began working in prisons 50 years ago. I was just out of grad school and I accepted the challenge of starting a literacy program in the Philadelphia Prison System. The shock of cellblock life was eye-opening, but the most unexpected revelation was the sight of scores of inmates wrapped in bandages and medical tape. Unknown to the general public, the three city prisons had become a lucrative appendage of the University of Pennsylvania’s Medical School. As I would discover years later, thousands of imprisoned Philadelphians had been used in a cross-section of unethical and dangerous scientific studies running the gamut from simple hair dye and athlete’s foot trials to radioactive isotope, dioxin, and US Army chemical warfare studies. My account of the prison experiments, Acres of Skin, helped instill in me an abiding faith in well-researched journalism as an antidote to societal indiscretions and crimes.


I wrote...

Against Their Will: The Secret History of Medical Experimentation on Children in Cold War America

By Allen M. Hornblum, Judith L. Newman, Gregory J. Dober

Book cover of Against Their Will: The Secret History of Medical Experimentation on Children in Cold War America

What is my book about?

This groundbreaking book explores the underbelly of American medicine, the sordid history of scientific researchers using developmentally impaired children in overcrowded and underfunded state institutions as raw material for medical research. Against Their Will documents how thousands of children in hospitals, orphanages, and other public asylums became unwilling subjects in countless experimental studies during the 20th century.

Inheritance

By Dani Shapiro,

Book cover of Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love

Like DNA, I can’t keep a secret…until I picked up Inheritance, I had never read a memoir. I learned about the book from a friend in my DNA support group who raved about it. The author took a DNA test on a whim and suddenly found the bottom falling out of her world as she knew it. She became a detective as she followed clues and uncovered a long-kept sperm donor family secret. The author writes candidly about her struggles, questions the DNA test results raised, and meeting her biological father. Written in lyrical prose, Dani Shapiro invites you on her rollercoaster DNA journey. Take a seat and get ready for a beautiful and compassionate telling.


Who am I?

The Complete Book of Aspen is based on my DNA experience. I was crushed after taking a DNA test to learn that the man who raised me was not my biological father. It rocked the foundation my life was built upon. Suddenly I was struggling with my identity, wondering why I am who I am. This led to a deep dive into DNA-related books. I read everything I could, from DNA science to memoirs to novels whose characters were affected by DNA discoveries. I liked seeing how these brave souls handled their heartbreak. Not only is the subject fascinating, but it’s also comforting to know, fictional or not, that we're never alone.


I wrote...

The Complete Book of Aspen

By Danna Smith,

Book cover of The Complete Book of Aspen

What is my book about?

When Aspen’s best friend gives her a DNA test kit, a half teaspoon of spit is all it takes to discover her entire life has been a lie.

Learning that her beloved late father was not her biological father—and that her mother had deceived her—ignites a wild storm of emotions. Aspen struggles with her identity and the burden of being the gatekeeper of this closely guarded family secret. When her mother refuses to reveal her biological father’s name, Aspen sets out on a courageous journey to find him. A heartbreakingly hopeful young adult novel-in-verse by award-winning author and poet, Danna Smith, based on her true DNA experience. 

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