Remembering Prof. Dr. phil. Hans-Martin Sass (1935-2023)

Hans-Martin Sass in a tan jacket, seated in front of a river and a yellow house

Prof. Dr. Phil. Hans-Martin Sass
*December 4, 1935 –  †February 6, 2023

With sadness, we share news of the passing of Prof. Dr. phil. Hans-Martin Sass on February 6, 2023 at the age of 87. His death was unexpected, but peaceful, after a well-lived and full life. Hans-Martin was a bioethicist of international renown with friendships and colleagues around the world. He had a genuine interest in others and worked to make connections among people across the globe.  

Born in Hagen, Germany to Pastor Hans Sass and his wife Else, Hans-Martin trained to be a teacher and studied literature, philosophy and geography. In early work with very young pupils, he taught through stories – Aesop’s fables and other stories about animals that he, himself, had created – and was fascinated by the “philosophical and narrative response” of children to these stories. Later, when teaching philosophy at Bochum University in Bochum, Germany, he similarly used stories and current events to teach. After developing relationships with medical colleagues teaching practical anatomy, Hans-Martin decided to create lectures on practical philosophy accessible to students in all disciplines.

He came to Georgetown University in Washington, DC in 1980 with funding from the VW Foundation (Stiftung Volkswagenwerk) to conduct research on the development of professional ethics in the United States, especially in the field of bioethics. Originally a visiting scholar with a time-limited project and, “as a European scholar [asked] to teach Hegel and Marx,” Sass became a permanent research scholar at Georgetown’s Kennedy Institute of Ethics (KIE) by the mid-1980s after, again, following interests in medicine and meeting Georgetown faculty Robert M. Veatch, Ph.D., M.S., and Edmund D. Pellegrino, M.D., who were pioneers in the new field of medical ethics. Sass began to develop knowledge and expertise on bioethics topics, including, advance directives, brain death, the right to die, and medical ethics. His first scholarly article on a bioethics subject, namely “Reichs-Rundschreiben 1931: Pre-Nuremberg Regulations Concerning New Therapy and Human Experimentation,” was published in 1983. Hans-Martin also began his life-long work to facilitate and strengthen transatlantic (later global) exchange around medical ethics. This orientation toward international collaborations and knowledge sharing was built into the initial design and early years of the KIE, whose genesis was R. Sargent and Eunice Kennedy Shriver and André Hellegers, founding director of the KIE. Cognizant of historical and emerging ethical issues in medicine and research they sought to promote interdisciplinary deliberation from international and multi-religious perspectives. Throughout the Institute’s existence, this interest took shape through the scholars who developed ties to the Institute and its work and who, in turn, influenced others.

Recent research by German Historian of Medicine Dr. phil. Mathias Schülz identifies specific and influential efforts that Professor Sass made to bring people together for knowledge development and exchange. Building on the KIE’s annual, interdisciplinary, and interprofessional Intensive Bioethics Course (IBC), Dr. Sass obtained a grant (1986) from the “VW Foundation to bring German Scholars to Georgetown and enable them to join the  Intensive Bioethics Course at the Kennedy Institute together with American participants.” He built out an “Extended Course” focused specifically on the needs and topical interests of attending German physicians and philosophers, adding practical elements like medical grand rounds and visits to the U.S. National Institutes of Health to augment the academic and theoretical focus of the IBC. The first two Extended Courses were held in 1987 and 1988 with VW Foundation support. Seven additional courses through 1995 were sponsored by the German Research Foundation (Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG)) and the Donors’s Association for German Science (Stifterverband für die Deutsche Wissenschaft).

Hans-Martin continually worked to share what he was learning and to bring people together. He developed a special focus and connection to China and spoke, taught, wrote and published in China on topics in medical ethics. “He lectured in Argentina, Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Brazil, Canada, Croatia, the Czech Republic, India, Iran, Israel, Italy, Japan, France, the Netherlands, the Philippines, Poland, Portugal, Russia, Spain, Switzerland and Taiwan.” 

Sass developed the Bochum Protocol as a methodology in clinical ethics; Philosopher James Drane described this approach as one that “incorporates clinical, ethical, and epistemological issues and, in addition, covers different clinical settings.” He also continued his work on advance directives and end-of-life, editing an important comparative volume on Advance Directives and Surrogate Decision Making in Health Care: United States, Germany, and Japan (1998), with Robert M. Veatch and Rihito Kimura. He worked with Rita Kielstein to share their work “Using Stories to Assess Values and Establish Medical Directives” (1993) as a narrative alternative differing from other efforts to determine wishes for end-of-life that sometimes asked people to select medical interventions and treatment from long checklists.

One of Sass’ key contributions to the history and understanding of bioethics was his re-discovery (in 1997), translation, and analysis of little known publications by Protestant German Pastor Fritz Jahr. Jahr coined and explained the term “bioethik” in publications in 1926 and 1927 that seem to represent its first use — far earlier than it appeared in the United States in  1970-1971. Jahr, also a philosopher and educator in Halle an der Saale, asserted that we have moral obligations toward human and non-human forms of life in “Bio-Ethics: A Review of the Ethical Relationships of Humans to Animals and Plants” (1927).  Sass wrote extensively on Jahr, publishing an article in the Kennedy Institute of Ethics Journal, Fritz Jahr’s 1927 Concept of Bioethics (2007), a short pamphlet, Selected Essays in Bioethics 1927-1934 Fritz Jahr with postscript and references by HM Sass (2010), an edited volume with Amir Muzur, Fritz Jahr and the Foundations of Global Bioethics: The future of integrative bioethics (Berlin: LIT Verlag, 2012) and 1926-2016 Fritz Jahr’s Bioethics: A global discourse (2017) bringing in voices of discussants from around the world looking to bioethics in the 21st Century.

He was Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at Ruhr-Universitaet Bochum, Germany and Senior Research Scholar Emeritus at Kennedy Institute of Ethics at Georgetown University, Washington D.C. He also held academic positions at People’s University of China and Peking Union Medical College in Beijing. He was a founder of the Bochum Center for Medical Ethics and the Academy for Ethics in Medicine in Goettingen, Germany. Prof. Sass was a member of UNESCO’s  International Bioethics Committee. He was editor of the Ethik in der Praxis / Practical Ethics series at Lit Publishers, Münster, London, New York, and the Medizinethische Materialien, Bochum. He authored more than 250 articles and books, publishing widely in the field of bioethics and European continental philosophy, particularly Hegel and Marx, was a member of many international and national advisory bodies, and connected to numerous philosophical and bioethics journals. He continued his independent scholarship and at the Kennedy Institute, writing and editing well into his retirement and straight through the COVID-19 Pandemic. A recent publication with colleague Martin Woesler, Medicine and Ethics During the Time of Corona (Nov, 2021) assembles essays from 40 leaders in medical, sociological, political and religion research from 24 countries to provide answers and responses to ethical challenges during COVID-19. 

In 2015 Professor Sass, was honored as one of only about 70 people in the United States to be named a Rechtsritter of the Johanniter (a Knight of Justice of the Order of St. John (Johanniter) Subcommandery of the United States, officially known as the Brandenburg Bailiwick of the Knightly Order of St. John of the Hospital at Jerusalem. That brotherhood is dedicated to service, working with both Christian and non-Christian charitable organizations. Also in 2015 he was awarded the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany.

Professor Sass contributed to bioethics scholarship for four decades. His writings and teaching raised awareness in many and expanded the thinking of professionals about the origins of bioethics and international approaches to questions. He gave expression to Fritz Jahr’s Bioethical Imperative, “Respect Every Living Being as an end in itself and treat it, if possible, as such.” His enthusiasm for global collaboration is captured in the words of Confucius, “her er bu tong” – “in harmony, but not identical” (words from the book cover of his most recent volume on Jahr).

The Kennedy Institute is grateful to have had Professor Sass as a colleague and mourns his passing. His death was preceded by that of his wife, Renate, in 2004. He is survived by his daughters, Gabriele Sass and Angelika Sass; his granddaughters, Elisabeth and Anna; his sister, Annemarie Clarke; and his brother, Klaus Sass.

Memorial Services will be held on March 4, 2023 at 11 a.m. at Pilgrim Lutheran Church in Bethesda, MD and on March 11, 2023 at 11 a.m. at Washington Plaza Baptist Church, Lake Anne in Reston, VA.

More information about the memorial services

*This remembrance drew heavily on text and information from Doris Goldstein, M.L.S., M.A., Founding Director of the Bioethics Research Library, Kennedy Institute of Ethics, Georgetown University and on research and a publication by Dr. phil. Mathias Schütz of the Institute für Ethik, Geschichte und Theorie der Medizin, Medizinische Fakultät, Ludwig-Maximiians-Universität München, München, Germany, “Shared Principles? German Responses to American Bioethics Since the 1970s,” Journal of Contemporary History, 2022; 57(4), 859–877. Other information was extracted from an interview (“Interview with professor of philosophy Hans-Martin Sass, November 15-18, 2020”) conducted by Dr. Hanna Hubenko, Associate Professor of the Department of Public Health of the Medical Institute, Sumy State University and published in the Ukrainian journal Fìlosofìâ osvìti or Philosophy of Education, 2020; 26(2): 188-193.