Sharon Kaufman, esteemed medical anthropologist, has passed away

Sharon Kaufman, an anthropologist who in her award-winning 2005 book And a Time to Die revolutionized our understanding of emergent forms of death in the hospital and what might be done to transform the end of life, passed away on Saturday, April 2, at her home in Ross, California. She died without pain, surrounded by her family, and looking out onto her beautiful garden. She was 73 years old.

The cause was a very recently diagnosed cancer.

Dr. Kaufman was a member of the first cohort of graduate students trained in the young field of medical anthropology, receiving her PhD in 1980 from the discipline’s pioneering program based both at the medical school at the University of California, San Francisco and in the anthropology department at the University of California, Berkeley. She went on become Professor and eventually Chair of the medical anthropology PhD program at UCSF alongside a research appointment at the Institute for Health & Aging.

Kaufman’s decades of anthropological research on how Americans age and how medicine and the pharmaceutical industry respond was pathbreaking in its impact, both clinically for geriatric and internal medicine and conceptually and methodologically for the social sciences. This dual impact began with Kaufman’s 1986 book The Ageless Self: Sources of Meaning in Late Life, which used the philosophical tools of phenomenology to show how the Californians she interviewed found meaning in their aging not in the changes of the body over time but in a fierce if at times imperiled sense of continuity. Marked by incisive and resonant prose, it received recognition in the New York Times Book Review as a Notable Book, unusual for the first book by a young academic, as one of best books in over 25 years of University Press publishing.

Kaufman turned from a philosophically resonant to a historically focused anthropology in her 1993 book A Healer’s Tale: Transforming Medicine and Culture. She investigated the dramatic rise of “Bench to Bedside” medicine in US medical institutions over the twentieth century, showing how an emergent “technological imperative” to turn medical treatment into scientific experimentation not only generated significant clinical advances but disrupted the moral fabric of patient care. Harold Spiro, writing in the Journal of the American Medical Association, noted how Kaufman’s return to the milieu at the onset of this experimental turn—through oral histories of practitioners comprising medicine’s “Golden Age”—offered the possibility of a different way forward. Current practitioners “may have mistaken technology for their task, science for their religion, and business for their creed, but if the spirit of the physicians in this book wins out,medicine’s Golden Age is yet in the future.” As in her work to follow, Kaufman achieved a subtle form of critique, reading the predicament of technological medicine not as an either/or situation to be resolved by throwing out the baby of improved treatment with the bathwater of depersonalized care and new forms of risk. She demonstrated the importance of anthropology’s radical empiricism in showing exactly how medicine’s turn from experience to experimentation, entrepreneurship, and new regimes of evidence can have troubling effects. If Margaret Lock and Deborah Gordan had famously argued in 1988 that medical anthropology needed to turn its attention to contemporary biomedicine, Sharon Kaufman became and remained an innovator in how this project might be achieved: through a model of long-term extended research, of adjacency to clinical expertise, and of openness to new forms of conceptual work. Her theoretical rigor was all the more remarkable for its being housed in a language accessible not only to anthropologists but to clinicians and laypersons.

The intertwined benefit and harm of medicine’s technological imperative were taken further in Kaufman’s third and fourth books. And a Time to Die, subtitled How American Hospitals Shape the End of Life, reached a wide public beyond its significant impact on clinicians and scholars. It challenged the assumption that the growing capability of critical care medicine to keep persons alive at the end of life would inevitably benefit patients, attending to the often excruciating pain demanded of the dying and the moral and ontological uncertainty demanded of their caregivers. The book altered the dominant critique of death in the United States built on the earlier arguments of Jessica Mitford’s 1963 The American Way of Death and Ernest Becker’s 1974 The Denial of Death: that is, that modern Americans cannot bear death and in handing it over to groups of professionals become distanced from death, sealed off from its phenomenal experience. Kaufman shows how caregivers are forced into a new and difficult intimacy with the professional technical and economic regimes of hospital death. The book received the New Millennium Book Award, one of the highest honors bestowed by the Society for Medical Anthropology.

In 2015, Kaufman published Ordinary Medicine: Extraordinary Treatments, Longer Lives and Where to Draw the Line, examining a range of exceptional medical interventions being rendered normal for persons in their eighties and nineties as a consequence of the contemporary assemblage of evidence based medicine, big pharma, and the manipulation of clinical drug trials in rendering treatments insurable and thus clinically necessary despite what she demonstrates can be grave human and social costs. Together with And a Time to Die, this book led to her being awarded the Robert B. Textor and Family Prize for Excellence in Anticipatory Anthropology by the American Anthropological Association. In addition to these four single-authored books, Kaufman was part of multiple collaborative research projects with numerous colleagues in medicine, the arts and humanities, and the social sciences. She studied vaccine hesitancy and parent concerns about autism. She examined the structure and dynamics of geriatric evaluation. She examined the fashioning and violation of ethical norms in medical research. She wrote of her mother—the noted poet Shirley Kaufman—confronting and beset by dementia, an inquiry that was as much an engagement with poetry and reading and writing as with generation and affect and what can be known. Never able to set aside her perspicacious intellectual interests, she began a book project after her retirement from UCSF in 2020 on the story of her father —the noted physician Bernard Kaufman —from a childhood in Vienna while his American father (Sharon’s grandfather) undertook advanced studies in medicine during the rise of Nazism, to his return to Europe as a physician in the team of American soldiers liberating the Buchenwald concentration camp at the close of war. Not only a form of memoir, the book taking shape at her death was an engagement with the play of memory, uncertainty, event, and imagination that anthropological writing, and human aging, encounter and must address.

One of medical anthropology’s most cherished public intellectuals, Kaufman was also a master teacher and close reader of and mentor to innumerable colleagues around the world. Among her honors for her pedagogic achievement are her receipt of the Helen Nahm Research Lecture Award from the UCSF School of Nursing and the university’s 150th Anniversary Alumni Excellence Award. So many been privileged to have had Sharon as a mentor, colleague, and friend. Her loss is felt deeply.

In lieu of flowers, the family has asked that donations be sent to:

The Gay Becker and Sharon Kaufman Memorial Fund

Department of Humanities and Social Sciences

490 Illinois St., floor 7

San Francisco, CA 94143-0850.