Rothman, David J. 1937–

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Rothman, David J. 1937–

PERSONAL: Born April 30, 1937, in New York, NY; son of Murray and Anne Rothman; married Sheila Miller, June 26, 1960; children: Matthew, Micol. Education: Columbia University, B.A., 1958; Harvard University, M.A., 1959, Ph.D., 1964.

ADDRESSES: Office—Center for the Study of Society and Medicine, College of Physicians and Surgeons, Columbia University, 630 West 168th St., New York, NY 10032-3702; fax: 212-305-6416. E-mail[email protected]

CAREER: Historian, educator, and writer. Columbia University, New York, NY, assistant professor, 1964–67, associate professor, 1967–70, professor of history, 1971–, Bernard Schoenberg professor of social medicine and director of Center for Study of Society and Medicine. Fulbright professor, Hebrew University, Jerusalem, 1968–69, and in India, 1982. Fellow of Center for the Study of History of Liberty in America, Harvard University, 1965–66; member of Committee to Study Incarceration, sponsored by Field Foundation, 1971–72; visiting Pinkerton Professor, School of Criminal Justice, State University of New York, 1973–74; Samuel Paley lecturer, Hebrew University, Jerusalem, 1977; codirector, Project on Community Alternatives, 1978–82; board of directors, Mental Health Law Project, 1973–80, 1982–.

MEMBER: American Historical Association, Organization of American Historians, New York State Academy of Medicine, Phi Beta Kappa.

AWARDS, HONORS: Grant from American Philosophical Society, 1967, and U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, 1968–69; fellowship from Social Science Research Council, 1968, National Endowment for the Humanities, 1971–72, and National Science Foundation, 1972–73; Albert J. Beveridge Prize, American Historical Association, 1971, for The Discovery of the Asylum; fellowship from National Institutes of Mental Health, 1974–75 and 1978–81; Law Enforcement Assistance Administration fellow, 1975–76.


Politics and Power: The United States Senate, 1869–1901, Harvard University Press (Cambridge, MA), 1966.

(With Neil Harris and Stephan Thernstorm) The History of the United States: Source Readings, two volumes, Holt (New York, NY), 1969.

The Discovery of the Asylum: Social Order and Disorder in the New Republic, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1971, revised edition, with foreword by Thomas G. Blomberg, Aldine de Gruyter (New York, NY), 2002.

(With Willard Gaylin, Ira Glasser, and Steven Marcus) Doing Good: The Limits of Benevolence, Pantheon (New York, NY), 1978.

Incarceration and Its Alternatives in 20th Century America, U.S. Department of Justice, Law Enforcement Assistance Administration (Washington, DC), 1979.

Conscience and Convenience: The Asylum and Its Alternatives in Progressive America, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1980, revised edition, with a foreword by Thomas G. Blomberg, Aldine de Gruyter (New York, NY), 2002.

(With wife, Sheila M. Rothman) The Willowbrook Wars, Harper (New York, NY), 1984, reprinted with a new afterword by the authors, Aldine Transaction (New Brunswick, NJ), 2005.

Strangers at the Bedside: A History of How Law and Bioethics Transformed Medical Decision Making, Basic Books (New York, NY), 1991.

(With Aryeh Neier) Prison Conditions in India, Human Rights Watch (New York, NY), 1991.

(With Stephen Powers and Stanley Rothman) Hollywood's America: Social and Political Themes in Motion Pictures, Westview Press (Boulder, CO), 1996.

Beginnings Count: The Technological Imperative in American Health Care, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1997.

(With Shiela M. Rothman) The Pursuit of Perfection: The Promise and Perils of Medical Enhancement, Pantheon Books (New York, NY), 2003.

(With Shiela M. Rothman) Trust Is Not Enough: Bringing Human Rights to Medicine, preface by Aryeh Neier, New York Review of Books (New York, NY), 2006.

Also contributor to history journals.


(With Sheila M. Rothman) On Their Own: The Poor in Modern America, Addison-Wesley (Reading, MA), 1972.

(With Stanton Wheeler) Social History and Social Policy, Academic Press (New York, NY), 1981.

(With Steven Marcus and Spephanie A. Kiceluk) Medicine and Western Civilization, Rutgers University Press (New Brunswick, NJ), 1995.

(With Norval Morris) The Oxford History of the Prison: The Practice of Punishment in Western Society, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1995.

The Geography of Hope: Poets of the Colorado Western Slope, Conundrum Press (Crested Butte, CO), 2002.

Also editor of The Sources of American Social Tradition, 1975, The World of the Adams Chronicles, 1976, and The Sources of American Society. Advisory editor of Poverty in America: The Historical Record, 1971, The Family in America, 1972, and The Family, Arno Press (New York, NY), 1979.


Children's Hospitals in the Progressive Era: Two Investigations of Substandard Conditions, Garland (New York, NY), 1987.

The Consumers' League of New York: Behind the Scenes of Women's Work, Garland (New York, NY), 1987.

Dangers of Education: Sexism and the Origins of Women's Colleges, Garland (New York, NY), 1987.

Divorce: The First Debates, Garland (New York, NY), 1987.

Low Wages and Great Sins: Two Antebellum American Views on Prostitution and the Working Girl, Garland (New York, NY), 1987.

Maternal Mortality in New York City and Philadelphia, 1931–1933, Garland (New York, NY), 1987.

National Congress of Mothers: The First Conventions, Garland (New York, NY), 1987.

The Origins of Adoption, Garland (New York, NY), 1987.

Risks for the Single Woman in the City, Garland (New York, NY), 1987.

Women in Prison, 1834–1928, Garland (New York, NY), 1987.

SIDELIGHTS: David J. Rothman made a significant contribution to the study of public institutions with his book The Discovery of the Asylum: Social Order and Disorder in the New Republic. In it, he presents a detailed history of penitentiaries, orphanages, poorhouses, workhouses, and insane asylums in the United States, from the Revolutionary War era until the time of the Civil War. "The boldness and sweep of his arguments and the resonance of his implicitly antiinstitutional, antibureaucratic, anti-expert analysis of nineteenth-century prisons, asylums, and juvenile reformatories made that book an instant success," remarked Andrew Scull in the Nation.

Rothman explains that in colonial society, it was widely accepted that poverty, insanity, and criminal behavior were inescapable elements of the human condition, brought on by mankind's inherent sinfulness and God's great plan for the universe. Accordingly, the poor, the infirm, and the lawless were considered an integral part of the larger community. Rothman further notes that by far the strongest force in early American society was that of the household and the family. Therefore, the household was considered the proper place for ill, impoverished, orphaned, or insane citizens. At times, public funds were allocated for the care of such individuals, but they lived within family units—usually their own. Criminals were punished with fines, public humiliation, and—in extreme cases—execution, but they were rarely jailed for long periods.

American society underwent dramatic changes following the Revolution, however. The strength of the household began to crumble. Simultaneously, a belief arose that a utopian world really was possible. The infirm, the indigent, and the criminally inclined came to be seen as deviants from the utopian ideal rather than as integral parts of the imperfect world. The era of social reform dawned, in which it was believed that if only the proper institutions were established, such people could be isolated, reshaped, and then released as model citizens. During the 1820s, 1830s, and 1840s, orphanages, insane asylums, penitentiaries, poorhouses, and other institutions sprang up everywhere, founded on idealistic principles.

By 1850, most of the ideals had faded away. Public institutions still flourished, but their function was acknowledged to be grim and practical, and conditions in them were frequently horrific. Rothman examines the reasons why the institutions were preserved even though they had failed so miserably in their stated aims, and he states that new, experimental alternatives to the continuing tradition of isolating the "problem" members of our society must be explored. An Antioch Review contributor praised Rothman's book as "a painstaking effort to place social ills in a social context." Commonweal contributor Peter Steinfels found the book to be "fascinating," and a Library Journal contributor deemed it "fundamental to an understanding of our present problems in this institutional sphere." "This is more than a book about 'the discovery of the asylum'; it is also a major study in the development of the American character," declared John Demos in the New York Times Book Review. Demos added: "It is, above all, his sure sense of context that gives his study a remarkable vitality. The result is nothing less than a portrait of a whole generation of Americans, caught in a variety of revealing and sometimes contradictory poses."

Rothman focused exclusively on prisons in a book he coedited with Norval Morris: The Oxford History of the Prison: The Practice of Punishment in Western Society. Assessing the volume in the New York Times Book Review, Yale Kamisar judged it to be "well-written and intelligently indexed" and "also quite handsome—thanks to the more than one hundred paintings, drawings and photographs scattered throughout. Especially poignant are the eight full pages of artwork produced by inmates of the California State Prison System's Art in Corrections program."

Rothman co-wrote The Pursuit of Perfection: The Promise and Perils of Medical Enhancement, with his wife Shiela M. Rothman. The book examines the history and ethics of doctors administering drugs or performing various procedures on people with no medical illness or injury but rather to enhance the patient's appearance. They primarily focus on the use of hormones but also discuss surgeries such as liposuction and genetic manipulation. The authors explore the profit motive of the pharmaceutical industry and physicians who may be treating people without revealing all the potential risks of using hormones. At the same time, they write about the huge demand for hormone administration and other procedures by individuals and acknowledge that many people are willing to face potential problems in the future to enhance their body today. A contributor to the Economist called the book "a fascinating account of the ways in which medical discoveries quickly expand from their laboratory origins through therapeutic applications to lifestyle improvement, pushed along by ambitious clinicians, eager drug companies, demanding patients and excitable journalists." A Kirkus Reviews contributor wrote: "A loud and clear caveat emptor, backed up by undeniably disturbing facts regarding the risks and benefits of present-day procedures and future possibilities." Writing in Booklist, Donna Chavez commented: "This is worthy reading, for the Rothmans raise provocative questions." A Publishers Weekly contributor noted that "the book ends with an intelligent exploration of how genetic research could lead to procedures that would double existing life spans."



Antioch Review, summer, 1971, review of The Discovery of the Asylum: Social Order and Disorder in the New Republic, p. 286.

Booklist, November 1, 2003, Donna Chavez, review of The Pursuit of Perfection: The Promise and Perils of Medical Enhancement, p. 464.

Commonweal, December 3, 1971, Peter Steinfels, review of The Discovery of the Asylum, p. 238.

Economist, February 7, 2004, review of The Pursuit of Perfection, p. 79.

Hastings Center Report, January-February, 2005, review of The Pursuit of Perfection.

Kirkus Reviews, October 1, 2003, review of The Pursuit of Perfection, p. 1213.

Library Journal, April 15, 1971, review of The Discovery of the Asylum, p. 1381; March 15, 1991, Mark L. Shelton, review of Strangers at the Bedside: A History of How Law and Bioethics Transformed Medical Decision Making, p. 110; November 1, 1995, Michael Sawyer, review of The Oxford History of the Prison: The Practice of Punishment in Western Society, p. 92; December, 1995, Eric D. Albright, review of Medicine and Western Civilization, p. 144.

Nation, June 28, 1980, Andrew Scull, review of The Discovery of the Asylum, pp. 794-796.

New York Times Book Review, September 26, 1971, John Demos, review of The Discovery of the Asylum, p. 41; February 11, 1996, Yale Kamisar, review of The Oxford History of the Prison, p. 27.

Publishers Weekly, September 29, 2003, review of The Pursuit of Perfection, p. 53.


New York Review of Books Web site, (October 25, 2006), review of The Pursuit of Perfection.

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Rothman, David J. 1937–

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