In Memoriam: Michael Grodin.
In Memoriam: Michael Grodin
Michael Grodin, a beloved physician and distinguished medical ethicist whose research helped develop unique cross-cultural treatments for survivors of torture and genocide, died March 1 in the care of his family. He was 71.
He spent most of his career aiding survivors of some of the worst conflicts in recent human history, beginning as a therapist for elderly Holocaust survivors, and then for their children and grandchildren. Many older members of his own extended family died in the concentration camps, and Grodin later studied resiliency of survivors—how and why some people were better able to endure times of extreme hardship.
Of particular interest to Grodin, who earned his medical degree at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx, were the struggles faced by physicians in the Jewish ghettos and concentration camps of Eastern Europe during World War II. In his book Jewish Medical Resistance in the Holocaust, Grodin examined how public health measures enacted by those doctors helped combat the lethal combination of starvation, poor sanitary conditions, and disease brought on by Nazi rule.
Professor Grodin, emeritus professor of health law, policy and management, was the founding director of the Boston Center for Refugee Health and Human Rights, an award-winning program based out of the BMC Immigrant & Refugee Health Center (IRHC). In his practice he treated refugees from Rwanda, the former Yugoslavia, the Middle East, and Tibetan monks. These encounters sparked an interest in Eastern medicine and other alternative therapies to help care for ethnically and culturally diverse populations.
Leonard Glantz, emeritus professor of health law, policy and management, said “a relatively unknown fact [is that] Mike was an acupuncturist, a skill he learned to treat torture victims when they came to America to seek asylum and were unfamiliar or mistrustful of Western medicine.”
In a fascinating convergence of his cross-cultural approach to medicine, Grodin uncovered parallels in methods of treating post-traumatic shock in two groups: elderly Holocaust survivors and young Tibetan monks. As they aged and experienced various degrees of dementia, many of the Holocaust survivors in Grodin’s care began to lose some of the protective layers of inhibition that blocked the memories of the horrors they saw. Similarly, Tibetan monks who were tortured in Chinese prisons began to suffer flashbacks of their imprisonment during meditation, which Grodin found was undermining those protective layers in much the same way.
As a result of his work with refugees and survivors, many of whom suffered unimaginable mental and physical pain, Grodin took great lengths to make people feel as comfortable as possible. His office in the Talbot Building was a welcoming jumble of books and papers on every table, a sofa and overstuffed chairs to host students and patients, all bathed in warm light from carefully placed lamps.
On each shelf, binders of research into horrific events as well as artifacts of a life spent thinking about religion and its place in both science and society. Colorful Tibetan prayer flags arched over framed black-and-white photos of rabbis, some of them the four generations of rabbis Grodin was descended from. His desk was home to statuettes of Buddha, Tibetan singing bowls and small gongs for meditation practice, all used to help build trust and put clients at ease.
He interests merged East and West, old and new, and led him to become a tai chi and qigong instructor who often blended movement with meditation. He co-authored several studies on the effectiveness of using tai chi in the treatment of PTSD as part of a body of scholarly work that included more than 500 invited regional, national and international lectures, and more than 200 scholarly papers and journal articles. He edited or co-edited nine books, and was part of an international team of scholars that created the first known set of ethical and procedural guidelines on how to handle human remains from the Holocaust.
Ever mindful of the effects of stress, Grodin sometimes held tai chi classes and walking meditation sessions on the Talbot Green for the BUMC community, usually scheduling them for exam weeks to enable both students and faculty to unwind and seek peace. He would often make rounds of the Talbot Building, sticking his head into offices to smile and ask “How are you?,” which colleagues knew was a sincere inquiry and not an empty greeting.
His hallway salutations often had a faint New York accent from his years of speaking Yiddish and English among family members who grew up in the city, but Grodin was actually born and raised in Santa Monica, California, where his grandfather was a rabbi. “I tell people I’m from Brooklyn,” Grodin often joked.
He moved to Massachusetts in 1967 for undergraduate study at MIT, met his wife Nancy in New York while earning his MD, and spent several years of postgraduate and fellowships at UCLA and Harvard. In his more than 40 years at BU, Grodin was also the director of the Project on Ethics and the Holocaust at the Elie Wiesel Center for Judaic Studies on the Charles River Campus, a professor of Jewish Studies, and a member of the Division of Religious Studies of the College of Arts and Sciences.
Grodin’s gentle manner and warm laugh often enabled him to discuss difficult topics with agility and grace. In a letter to the SPH community, Dean Sandro Galea used the word “conscience” to describe Grodin and his enduring effect on those who sought his counsel.
When 11 Jewish worshippers were killed in a synagogue shooting in 2018, Grodin led the BUMC community in a spiritually healing exploration of good and evil, with some of his comments based on his research into the actions of doctors, rabbis, and civic leaders during the Holocaust.
Surgeons in St. Louis reached out to Grodin and his longtime research collaborator, Rabbi Joseph Polak of BU’s Hillel House for their guidance on whether doctors could morally and ethically use the detailed anatomical drawings in an important medical reference book, the Pernkopf Topographical Anatomy of Man. The Pernkopf atlas was created by Viennese medical illustrators who were Nazis or Nazi sympathizers and used executed victims of the Nazi regime as dissection subjects. Some of the early editions of the atlas—including one in the BU Medical Library—had illustrations with swastikas and SS insignia that were airbrushed out of later editions.
Grodin and Rabbi Polak wrote that despite the book’s evil origins, if it can be used to save a life, it must be used.
Through all of his years at BU, Grodin maintained a delicate balance between science and spirituality, understanding that both were often critical to the mental and emotional well-being of his patients.
In a 2017 interview, Grodin quipped that “My father would say if I had studied properly at Yeshiva University I wouldn’t have had to go into medicine and could have become a rabbi. It’s funny, a famous rabbi spoke after me at a conference where I said that, and he said that his father said if he studied properly he could have been a doctor.”
Services for Professor Grodin were held on March 3. A celebration of Professor Grodin’s life and work will be held on the BU Campus at a later date.
Thank you for the beautiful tribute to Dr. Grodin. I didn’t know all these amazing things about him. He was a truly incredible human being and scholar, and his work will have a long-lasting positive impact on our society. His passing is a huge loss to the BUSPH community. I hope we are able to honor him by continuing to work towards his vision of peace, healing, and health for all.