OHSU

About Daniel Labby

Daniel Labby, MD:  Ethics Center founder and creator of the Labby Senior Clinicians' Seminars

Daniel Labby
Daniel Labby
Daniel Labby

Dr. Labby Presenting at Early Seminars

To describe Daniel Labby as a man of insatiable curiosity and boundless spirit barely does justice to his particular brand of intelligence, wisdom and grace that he has so lovingly brought to his role as one of the Ethics Center's founders. 

Although still actively teaching, he had been officially "retired" for four years when he became one of the Center's founding forces in 1989.  At that time, ethics was hardly a new interest for him. Trained as both internist and psychiatrist with a distinguished record of accomplishment that took him to the east coast and Europe and included many years of practice and teaching at OHSU, he had an extraordinary range of expertise. Diabetes, liver disease, syphilis and human sexuality (he pioneered education on this subject in Portland's high schools and colleges) were but some of his areas of study and practice, and each added to his uniquely broad view of medicine while fueling his growing interest in ethical issues.

As early as the 1960s he presented a seminar at Reed College entitled The Sanctity of Life, which was later published as Life or Death, Ethics and Options. A decade later he created the Council on Humanism in Medical Education at OHSU as a forum for student discussion on ethical issues. Soon ethics became, as Dan puts it, "a topic that is life's blood for me."

"I was terribly troubled by some of the ruthlessness of the medical profession, and I thought the patient too often took second place to the egos of the doctors," he explains.

"I also saw how the enormous seduction of technology was sometimes detracting from the more humane considerations, and I was concerned whether we were living up to the enormous responsibility that we were given by patients who entrusted us with their health care, and their lives."

It was no surprise, then, that Dan was one of the first to be approached by Dr. Susan Tolle when she returned from her ethics training at the University of Chicago to partner with others to create the Center for Ethics at OHSU. Such an invitation was, for Dan, "simply irresistible."

One of the primary roles he would take on in building the Center's programs grew from his thinking about his own retirement as he wondered "what happens to all that stuff you have in your head when you retire." He began to reflect more generally on how much invaluable experience was lost when health care professionals left the profession. And out of this fertile line of thought was born his acclaimed Senior Clinicians' Seminar, which began in 1989 as a way to harvest the untapped wisdom of his many distinguished colleagues who were no longer practicing.

"The retired health care professional is the greatest loss of person power there is because of all that human experience that is no longer available," he says emphatically. "I thought we should try to tap their judgment and try to find ways to pass it on to future generations of students."

More than two decades and numerous seminars later, the series has roamed the medical landscape far and wide, touching on countless ethical issues. Sometimes, its tone is almost confessional as physicians and other health care professionals talk openly about things they did or said that they have never forgotten. Always, the discussion is lively and illuminating.

In fact, optimistic as the goals for the seminars had been, the reality of the series has exceeded even these ambitious hopes. Not only has the discussion brought a wealth of wisdom and experience to the larger ethical debate, but it has also sown the seed for curriculum change and policy development.

Dan, not surprisingly, is characteristically modest about his program's success.  "This came at a good time for me because they tell me that I retired in 1985," he chuckles.  And he's quick to point out how much he has benefited from Susan Tolle's steadfast vision and boundless energy – "like hitching my wagon to a star" – lest his own impressive array of talents and accomplishments be too long in the spotlight.

But, for all his disarming humility, an array of adjectives persist in coming to mind to describe this remarkable pioneer: inspired leader; generous donor; beloved teacher; gifted, wise and gentle healer.  Dan Labby is all of these.