Rothman, Sheila M(iller)

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ROTHMAN, Sheila M(iller)


Married David J. Rothman (a professor of social medicine and history), June 26, 1960; children: Matthew, Micol. Education: Columbia University, Ph.D., 1989.


Office—Center for the Study of Society and Medicine, Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, 630 West 168th St., P.O. Box 11, New York, NY 10032; fax: 212-305-6416. E-mail—[email protected]


Educator and author. Mailman School of Public Health, Columbia University, New York, NY, professor of public health, chair of task force on genetics and public health, and member of task force on human genetics; College of Physicians and Surgeons, Center for the Study of Society and Medicine, deputy director. National Institutes of Health Genome Project, Race and Ethnicity in Genetic Research, principal investigator; member, Challenge of Live Organ Donation; Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Bellagio task force on securing bodily integrity for the socially disadvantaged, co-principal investigator, beginning 1995; Human Rights Watch—Asia, advisory board member; involved in other health-related organizations and investigations.


Woman's Proper Place: A History of Changing Ideals and Practices, 1870 to the Present, Basic Books (New York, NY), 1978.

(Editor) Marion Harland, Eve's Daughters; or, Common Sense for Maid, Wife, and Mother, Dabor Social Science Publications (Farmingdale, NY), 1978.

(With husband, David J. Rothman) The Willowbrook Wars, Harper & Row (New York, NY), 2003.

Living in the Shadow of Death: Tuberculosis and the Social Experience of Illness in American History, Basic Books (New York, NY), 1994.

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

(With David J. Rothman) Trust Is Not Enough: Bringing Human Rights to Medicine, New York Review of Books Press (New York, NY), 2005.

Advisory editor, with David J. Rothman, of Gene Brown, editor, The Family, Arno Press (New York, NY), 1979.


On Their Own: The Poor in Modern America, Addison-Wesley Publishing (Reading, MA), 1972.

Sources of the American Social Tradition, Basic Books (New York, NY), 1975.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Women in Prison: 1834-1928, Garland Publishing (New York, NY), 1987.

Also contributor to journals, including New York Review of Books and Public Interest.


A professor of public health and a deputy director of Columbia University's Center for the Study of Society and Medicine, Sheila M. Rothman has written and edited a number of important studies on the treatment of the mentally ill, the history of tuberculosis, and America's growing obsession with cosmetic surgery, among other medical and social issues. Working with her husband, historian David J. Rothman, on several of these projects, Sheila Rothman has also collaborated with her husband as coeditor of a series of books on sexism in U.S. history. Her academic work and volunteer activities have also drawn Rothman into the ongoing debate over complex issues of organ donation and transplant wait lists, human rights in Asia, and attempts to halt the worldwide spread of AIDS.

With her husband, David, an expert in the history of asylums, Rothman wrote The Willowbrook Wars. The book presents a comprehensive study of the Staten Island, New York, mental facility that television journalist Geraldo Rivera once revealed as an unsanitary and often cruel dumping ground for the mentally ill. Rivera's 1972 exposé launched a lawsuit by the New York Civil Liberties Union and ultimately led to widespread deinstitutionalization of the mentally ill throughout the United States. The Rothmans cover the legal maneuvering, including the plaintiffs' frantic search for a sympathetic judge, the political upheavals, and the very real bureaucratic obstacles that accompanied the transition from institutionalization to community services for the mentally ill. "Although the authors' partisanship detracts from their ability to present the state's side of the story fully and fairly, there is too much that is too good not to pay honest tribute," noted New Republic contributor Joel I. Klein. "The Rothmans' book presents a clear and compelling account of complicated legal and political strategies and skirmishes; it reflects comprehensive factual research and field work; and it tells a fascinating story in gripping detail."

Rothman has undertaken another major study of the intersection of health and social policy, this time focusing on the treatment of physical illness. In Living in the Shadow of Death: Tuberculosis and the Social Experience of Illness in American History she tells the story of the disease from the point of view of the patients themselves. Her story spans the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and straddles the discovery in 1882 of the true cause of the disease, the tubercle bacillus. Prior to that, victims of "consumption" were often stigmatized for giving into weaknesses of character and treatment often consisted in getting the patient to move to more environments that were considered healthier, such as the Southwest and California, resulting in a little-known but important impetus to westward expansion.

In Living in the Shadow of Death Rothman also covers the effect gender had on treatment of the disease. While men were encouraged to overcome their "weakness" by taking on more strenuous careers in farming or sailing, women were encouraged to stay home. At the same time, women were still expected to marry and bear children, and Rothman discusses a number of poignant examples of women raising children while preparing them for life as adopted orphans. She also traces the growing fear of the disease as consumption, seen as an inherited malady, gave way to "tuberculosis," correctly identified as a contagious disease, and the restrictions this placed on sufferers. In the end, however, Rothman concludes "that patients were never totally passive, and she argues that her 'narratives of illness' free TB patients from both the tyranny of the case record and powerful literary constructs and metaphors used to describe sick people," according to a Queen's Quarterly reviewer. "Indeed," the reviewer added, "her evidence shows the complexities of the experience of tuberculosis, not least the distance between actual experience and literary depiction," Noting that tuberculosis has since made something of a resurgence in a more virulent form, Ellen L. Idler remarked in Contemporary Sociology: "The story of tuberculosis is not finished. Sheila Rothman's book on the social and individual experience of this illness makes compelling reading as history, but it is also as timely as today's news."

In The Pursuit of Perfection: The Promise and Perils of Medical Enhancement, coauthored with her husband, Rothman addresses the implications underlying a society that accepts, unquestioningly, the brave new world of hormonal and genetic therapies. More generally, the authors discuss the blurry distinction between cure and cosmetic enhancement, describing a common path of restorative treatments from wacky experiment to luxury to must-have medical breakthrough. Writing in the Women's Review of Books, Randi Hutter Epstein found that the Rothmans' work "will appeal to skeptical patients, who will be intrigued by the behind-the-scenes picture of the medical establishment. But the greatest fascination, for me, lay not with the peddlers of enhancement treatments, but with the American public, which seems to have an insatiable appetite for anything touted to promote youthful appearance and sexual vigor—even when there is a glaring lack of evidence regarding safety." Once again, gender, along with age and status, play a big role, but there is a common theme: the frantic pursuit of youth and beauty, and a medical establishment willing to cut corners to profit from it. As Washington Post reviewer Gregory Mott explained, "the authors provide a frequently eye-opening view of the skimpy or dubious scientific evidence that resulted in the aggressive marketing of hormone replacement therapy for women, testosterone enhancement for men, human growth hormone for short children and liposuction for unwanted flab."



Contemporary Sociology, July, 1995, Ellen L. Idler, review of Living in the Shadow of Death: Tuberculosis and the Social Experience of Illness in American History, p. 415.

Economist, February 7, 2004, "Ayes and No's: Cosmetic Surgery," p. 79.

Journal of Social History, fall, 1996, Constance E. Putnam, review of Living in the Shadow of Death, p. 274.

Library Journal, January, 1994, review of Living in the Shadow of Death, p. 153; November 1, 2003, Andy Wickens, review of The Pursuit of Perfection: The Promise and Perils of Medical Enhancement, p. 116.

New Republic, February 4, 1985, Joel I. Klein, review of The Willowbrook Wars, p. 28.

New York Times Book Review, January 4, 2004, Stephen S. Hall, review of The Pursuit of Perfection, p. 10.

Publishers Weekly, January 10, 1994, review of Living in the Shadow of Death, p. 52.

Queen's Quarterly, summer, 1996, review of Living in the Shadow of Death, pp. 403-414.

Washington Post, February 8, 2004, Gregory Mott, review of The Pursuit of Perfection, section T, p. 13.

Women's Review of Books, May, 2004, Randi Hutter Epstein, "Extreme Makeovers," p. 15.


Columbia University Center for Bioethics Web site, (September 29, 2004), "Sheila M. Rothman."

Mailman School of Public Health Web site, (September 29, 2004), "Sheila M. Rothman."

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Rothman, Sheila M(iller)

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