Lives of the fellows

John Alexander Balint

b.11 February 1925 d.16 December 2016
BA Cantab(1945) MB BChir(1948) MRCP(1952) FRCP(1976) MD(1980) FACP(1982)

John Balint was an expert and caring clinician, a National Institutes of Health funded researcher, a passionate teacher and a dedicated ethicist who, at the age of 69, established the center for medical ethics at the Albany Medical Center in Albany, New York, which later became the Alden March bioethics institute. While a successful researcher, the cornerstones of his career were patient care and teaching. He left a legacy not only in the community with the patients that he served so ably for more than 50 years, but more broadly through those he trained, inspiring them to give the compassionate, thoughtful and ethical care that he so exemplified in practice. Everyone who knew him described him the same way: ‘a wonderful man’.

He was born in Budapest, Hungary, the only child of Michael and Alice Balint, both psychoanalysts. The family moved to England in 1939, where his mother died suddenly seven months later, just before the outbreak of the Second World War. He began his British education at Abbotsholme and then attended Caius College, Cambridge, where he earned a bachelor of arts degree in 1945 and his medical degree in 1948. There he met his wife Jean (née Gibson), who was also studying medicine.

He was a house physician at St Thomas’ Hospital in London and then served as a medical officer in the Royal Air Force from 1950 to 1952, where he was promoted to squadron leader. From 1952 to 1953, he was a house physician at the Brompton Hospital. From 1954 to 1958, he was a medical registrar at Central Middlesex Hospital and Charing Cross Hospital, learning gastroenterology from Francis Avery Jones [Munk’s Roll, Vol.XII, web].

He then emigrated to the United States in 1958 to study hepatology with Leon Schiff at the University of Cincinnati, followed by training in lipid biochemistry under the tutelage of Albert Mendeloff at the Sinai Hospital and the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. His first academic position in gastroenterology was at the University of Alabama in Birmingham from 1960 to 1963. From there, he was recruited to establish a gastroenterology division at Albany Medical Center in Albany, New York. He remained there until his reluctant retirement in 2014.

He was promoted to full professor in 1968. After serving as head of the division of gastroenterology for 18 years, he was chairman of the department of medicine from 1981 to 1988. He then directed the medical residency program until 1992. Always looking for new challenges, in 1993 he undertook a one year fellowship in clinical medical ethics at the MacClean center of the University of Chicago in preparation for establishing the center for medical ethics at the Albany Medical Center in 1994.

He gave up clinical practice in 2008, saying he did not want to make a mistake in caring for a patient as he described himself as slowing down, at the age of 83, having a harder time keeping up with all of the advances in medicine. He continued his teaching and ethics consultations for as long as he could, but in 2014, when Alzheimer’s disease made this no longer possible, he gave that up as well.

His father had a profound effect on John’s professional life. In particular, John’s deep commitment to and recognition of the importance of the doctor-patient relationship in the provision of care was encouraged by their discussions. This was a topic of significant interest to Michael; one of his books was The doctor, his patient and the Illness (London, Pitman Medical Publishing Co), first published in 1957. The introduction to the millennium reprint in 2000 was written by John and describes his own view of the doctor-patient relationship and the evolution of this relationship with social change, market forces and scientific advances. John published 90 peer reviewed papers on biliary and pulmonary lipid metabolism (the focus of his laboratory work for many years), clinical findings, ethics and the doctor-patient relationship.

He served on many committees both locally and nationally. Perhaps the two he was most proud of were the committees on ethics of the American Gastroenterological Association and the American Association for the Study of Liver Diseases, both of which he helped found and served as the first chairperson. He served on many boards as he was committed to serving the community. In recognition of his service, he also received numerous awards. There are two that capture his essence. The Whitney M Young Jr Health Center’s Living the Legacy award in 2012 recognises individuals who have exhibited a strong belief in education as a tool to a better life, who believe that social justice and fairness are paramount to a just society, and who reach out to adversaries to find common ground. In his nomination for the lifetime achievement award of the Capital District Senior Issues Forum, it was written that ‘His unending passion and sense of responsibility to teach and guide others has positively impacted the greater community. Although his demeanor exudes calmness, warmth and patience – it is his unwavering devotion towards improving the lives of others and his unremitting efforts towards that aim – that will be his legacy.’

In a tribute, his grandson wrote the following: ‘Most of all, John was an incredibly generous person and he truly believed that those with means (whether educational, political or financial) had a duty to try and make the world a better place. He was keenly interested in politics and advocated for and supported social justice causes. He believed in the power of education perhaps more than anything…. I think what he would ask from all of us as we remember him, is simply to be kind to one another, to do our best to help and serve others, and so in this way do our part every day to make the world a better place.’

He was survived by his wife Jean, son Peter, daughter Jane, grandchildren Simon and Rachael, and greatgrandchildren Sawyer, Hanieka and Mathias, as well as many grateful patients and former students.

Jane P Balint

[BMJ 2017 356 369 www.bmj.com/content/356/bmj.j369 – accessed 16 June 2017; Albany Times Union 18 December 2016 www.legacy.com/obituaries/timesunion-albany/obituary.aspx?pid=183120000 – accessed 16 June 2017; Albany Times Union 20 December 2016 www.timesunion.com/local/article/Dr-John-Balint-medical-ethics-pioneer-at-Albany-10809003.php – accessed 16 June 2017]

(Volume XII, page web)

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