Obituary of Prof. Dr. Hans Martin Sass (1935-2023)

On February 6, 2023, Hans-Martin Sass, retired Professor of Philosophy at the Ruhr University in Bochum, Germany, and Senior Research Scholar and Director of the European Professional Ethics Program of the Kennedy Institute of Ethics at Georgetown University in Washington DC, died in his adopted country, the United States, at the age of 87.

Born in Hagen (Westphalia), he graduated from high school in Gelsenkirchen, studied philosophy in Erlangen and received his doctorate in Münster in 1963. In 1965, Sass returned to the Ruhr region to the newly founded Ruhr-University in Bochum, where he habilitated in 1972 and helped establish the philosophy department. From 1980 until his retirement, he worked simultaneously at the Ruhr-University in Bochum and Georgetown University in Washington DC. This unique “Joint Appointment” was sponsored by the Ministry of Science of the State of North Rhine-Westphalia so that Sass could act as a bridge builder between the medical ethics already developed and established in the United States and the new developments in Germany. He wrote an influential report on the development and perspectives of US bioethics for the then Federal Ministry of Research and Technology and advised the ministry with his personal experience and inside knowledge.

Sass did not see himself as an uncritical translator of U.S. bioethics but tried to follow an independent path in the development of medical ethics in Germany and Europe with an orientation to European traditions. He was happy to remind his U.S. bioethics colleagues that the term “bioethics” had already been coined in 1927 by the German theologian Fritz Jahr (1895-1953) and translated his publications into English.

The high personal commitment of Hans-Martin Sass has decisively shaped and promoted the development of the field of ethics in medicine in German-speaking countries. He has invited more than 100 European and especially German colleagues to intensive courses at the Kennedy Institute of Ethics, one of the world’s leading centers for research and teaching in bioethics, and has facilitated international exchange through his tireless mediation and third-party funding. Many of the participants and their students are now engaged in research and teaching in medical ethics. In the academic year 1994/95, Hans-Martin mentored me as a young visiting scholar at the Kennedy Institute of Ethics, and I think back with gratitude and pleasure to his expert advice and personal exchanges. I will also remember the hospitality of Hans-Martin and his wife Renate in Washington, where a lively crowd of international guests gathered in their home on the occasion of the American Thanksgiving holiday.

This development work took place under difficult conditions that are hardly imaginable today. In the Federal Republic of Germany, there was no professorship for medical ethics at a medical faculty and scientifically based medical ethics hardly played a role in medical training. The majority of philosophical university institutes showed no interest in the applied and practical issues of medical ethics. Politicians, the media and the public only slowly began to discover the importance of medical ethics issues for our society. At that time, medical ethics had no academic home in the Federal Republic; it lacked everything: personnel, money, influence and its own institutions.

In this difficult situation, Sass and other committed university professors founded the Zentrum für Medizinische Ethik e.V. (ZME; Centre for Medical Ethics) at the Ruhr-Universität Bochum in 1986, a few months before the founding of the Akademie für Ethik in der Medizin e.V. (Academy for Ethics in Medicine), which he always emphasized with a proud twinkle in his eye, as an interdisciplinary platform for research, teaching, policy advice and public relations. Until its dissolution, the Center included 38 professors of the Ruhr-University Bochum from the faculties of philosophy, medicine, theology, law, social sciences and biochemistry. Just one year later (1987), Sass and his colleague in social medicine, Herbert Viefhues, who was also a board member of the newly founded Academy for Ethics in Medicine, published the interdisciplinary publication series “Medizinethische Materialien,” which included 195 titles (available free of charge at In addition to the early Bochum case studies on the ethical analysis of medical cases, special mention should be made of the Bochum Work Sheet on Medical Ethical Practice (1987), which has been widely distributed and translated into 12 languages. The worksheet serves as a guide for members of the treatment team in medical ethical case discussions. It asks in a structured way for medical facts as well as ethical aspects and leads on this basis to a practical consultation about the further treatment of the patient. In its content and form, the Bochum Code of Practice accommodates physicians’ actions and thoughts and expands them by means of comprehensible and structured principles of medical ethics. This is expressed, for example, by the term “value picture” of the patient in analogy to the medically known “blood picture” in order to clarify the high relevance of ethical aspects in medical treatment, as Hans-Martin Sass tirelessly emphasized. This developed into the now established models of ethical case consultation in healthcare. Another example of Sass’s pioneering work is the “value anamnesis,” a form of precautionary disposition that goes beyond the usual check-off forms of living wills and has attracted considerable attention. For many years, the ZME offered free citizen advice on living wills. From this early pioneering work in Bochum, the field of “clinical ethics” developed, which is still a research focus of Bochum’s medical ethics today.

In addition, Sass was involved in the founding of the Academy for Ethics in Medicine. Since 2000, he has edited the series “Ethik in der Praxis – Practical Ethics” published by Lit, Münster, with over 80 publications. Two major international conferences, which Sass held in Bochum on the topics of interdisciplinary methodology “Consideration of Goods and Medicine” and “Genome Analysis and Gene Therapy”, have made a formative contribution to the conceptual and methodological development of medical ethics in Germany.

From 1975 to 1981, Sass was executive director of the General German Society for Philosophy. In this capacity, he organized the 16th World Congress of Philosophy in Düsseldorf for the Fédération Internationale des Sociétés de Philosophie; this was the first time that the world association of philosophers met in Germany after World War II.

As a proven expert on classical German philosophy and Marxism-Leninism, he participated in the first “Delegation of the German Research Foundation” to the People’s Republic of China in 1980. The friendship agreement between the Ruhr-University and Togji University, which has existed since 1981, can be traced back to his talks with university presidents in Shanghai in 1980. Sass, who among other things was an honorary professor at the Peking Union Medical College (PUMC) and the People’s University of China in Beijing, was regarded in China as a trustworthy representative of German science, especially in the field of bioethics. His 2006 bilingual Chinese-English book Bioethics and Biopolitics Beijing Lectures by a European Scholar has become an influential standard work in Chinese medical ethics.

In 1991/92, Sass was a member of the preparatory committee appointed by the Director-General of UNESCO for the establishment of the “Comité international de bioéthique” (CIB) and subsequently participated as a German member in the dissemination of the UNESCO Declaration on the Human Genome in 1997.

For his services, Hans-Martin Sass was awarded the Federal Cross of Merit 1st Class and as “Knight of Justice of the Order of Saint John” in 2015.

With the death of Hans-Martin Sass, medical ethics in Germany loses a formative, internationally accomplished and far-sighted founding father. Through his decades of personal commitment, which went far beyond his professional duties as a university professor of philosophy, he rendered great service to the fields of science, society, and international understanding. His kindness, reliability and optimism have encouraged and strengthened many younger medical ethicists. We will keep Hans-Martin Sass in honorable memory.

Jochen Vollmann