John D. Arras, University Porterfield professor of biomedical ethics and of philosophy and public health sciences, died of a stroke Mar. 16 in Galveston, Texas while on a spring break vacation.
Arras authored numerous articles on bioethics, and his recent research focused on topics such as assisted suicide, public health ethics, research on human subjects, theories of global justice and social determinants of health.
In 2010, Arras was the second University faculty member to be appointed to the presidential bioethics commision. While serving on the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues, his research explored topics such as synthetic biology, research ethics and whole genome sequencing.
In 2005, the University Alumni Association honored Arras with the Distinguished Professor Award for teaching, research and contributions to student life. In 2006, he received an Outstanding Faculty Award from the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia.
Megan O’Connor, a third-year College student and former student of Arras, said her experience with him was in an intimate class setting where students were able to get to know him as a professor.
“He wasn’t by the book — he really emphasized class discussion and encouraged us to form our own opinions before asserting his own,” O’Connor said. “He would invite people to come over to his class for dinner. He took time out of his personal life to get to know students.”
Biomedical Ethics Prof. Lois Shepherd said Arras had a great deal of love for his students and always respected the opinions of others.
“Although he was a big player on the national scene in bioethics, he was devoted to the local scene as well — always generous with his time and ideas, trying to make the University a better place, the world a better place,” Shepherd said in an e-mail. “He was hilarious, too. He could always make us laugh. It’s quieter here in the Center now — we miss him dearly.”
Throughout his life, Arras demonstrated a strong commitment to his community and social issues. He served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Sierra Leone in 1969 during his graduate program at Northwestern University, where he earned his Ph.D. in philosophy in 1972.
His completed his undergraduate studies at the University of San Francisco, where he graduated with a B.A. in philosophy and French. Arras later attended the Institute of European Studies at the University of Paris (Sorbonne).
James Childress, the University John Allen Hollingsworth Professor of Ethics, was on the search committee for the Porterfield Chair in Biomedical Ethics, and said the committee was very pleased to have secured Arras for the job.
“The program he built has succeeded far beyond our initial expectations because of his leadership and outreach — he involved faculty from various departments in what has become a stellar program that has earned the loyalty of many undergraduates,” Childress said.
Arras’ colleague Donna Chen team-taught a seminar on neuroethics with him in the fall of 2014.
“In team-teaching with John, I got to experience firsthand why students loved him so much,” Chen said. “He was equally generous in sharing his wisdom and wry wit with me. We argued and laughed a lot. I will miss John, but I also know that memories of him will make me smile.”
Childress said John will be missed for his strong personality, compassion and thoughtful engagement with his students.
“We can only say of this huge loss what John himself liked to say: ‘This is a total bummer,’” Childress said.