Remembering the ‘Unpredictable Journey’ of Ernlé Young, Stanford bioethicist and pioneer

Feb. 25, 2021, 8:34 p.m.

Ernlé Young, a bioethicist and professor emeritus at Stanford’s School of Medicine, passed away on Feb. 14. He was 88.

Young, who spent almost 30 years at Stanford, was the co-founder and co-director of the Center for Biomedical Ethics. He also served as an associate dean of Memorial Church and piloted the Stanford Hospital Chaplaincy Department.

The anti-apartheid activist, educator, ordained minister and printer left a strong impression at Stanford and beyond. Throughout his life, his friends and family say that Young personified his epitaph quote: “Whatever he did, he did with passion.”

Dr. Thomas Raffin, professor emeritus of medicine and co-founder of the Center alongside Young, called his longtime colleague “a true pioneer of biomedical ethics.” 

“When there was a difficult ethical dilemma, I would call Ernlé for help. One of his greatest talents was that he was a great listener, and he was listened to in return,” Raffin said. He added that Young was a favorite among students of all ages. 

Born on December 14, 1932 in Johannesburg, South Africa, Young graduated from high school at age 15 and became a printer apprentice. By age 19, he had become a master printer and embarked on a journey to Europe, where he later became a minister. 

Maureen O’Hara, a retired oncology nurse at Stanford Medical Center, recalled fond memories of Young visiting patients daily and carrying the chaplain program on his shoulders. She said that he lifted the spirits of all he visited and strolled through the halls with “a combination of passion and compassion all his own.”

“The world is a better place, a kinder place, a more compassionate place, a more just place, because of his presence in it,” O’Hara said. 

Young received a B.A. and M.A. from Rhodes University in Grahamstown, South Africa and a Ph.D. from Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas. After completing his education, Young traveled back to South Africa and became a fierce anti-apartheid activist. His activism ultimately forced him and his family to flee to California in 1973, where he was recruited by Stanford to teach biomedical ethics and start a chaplaincy program at the medical center.

In a 2012 interview with the Stanford Historical Society about his time on the Farm, Young quoted the theologian and ethicist Reinhold Niebuhr. “The job of the preacher is to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable,” he said. Young then laughed and said, “I think I was able to do that.” 

Young served as a consultant for NASA and ultimately left Stanford in 2002 to oversee research at the NASA Ames Research Center before his retirement in 2013. 

Throughout his career he authored several books, chapters and articles in the emerging field of biomedical ethics, including his book, “Alpha and Omega: Ethics at the Frontiers of Life and Death.” His 2017 memoir, “Unpredictable Journey: A Memoir,” intimately details his life experiences from South Africa to Palo Alto. 

“I was deeply privileged to have Ernlé as a colleague at Memorial Church,” Robert Gregg, dean emeritus of Stanford Memorial Church, wrote in an email to The Daily. 

“His passion for racial justice and for ethics in the field of medicine was stellar, and his pastoral sensitivity affected hundreds of lives at Stanford. I salute the life he lived.”

Young is survived by his wife Margaret and his children Heather, Andrew, Jenny and Timothy.

Contact Lauryn Johnson at ljohnson ‘at’

Lauryn Johnson writes for The Daily's News section. Contact her at ljohnson 'at'

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