Founding chair of Department of Humanities dies

July 21, 2010

Recently, E.A. (Al) Vastyan, founding chair of the Department of Humanities at Penn State College of Medicine died. He held the position for 21 years.

Founding Dean George Harrell recruited Vastyan from the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, where he served as chaplain to the medical students and director of the William Temple Foundation for Humanistic Studies. Because of the historical relationship between medicine and religion and the presence of diverse religions in the area, Harrell aspired for the chair and first professor of the fledging department to be a member of the clergy with experience serving a medical community. Vastyan fit the bill. Upon completing an honors undergraduate of Dennison University, Vastyan received his bachelor of divinity degree cum laude from Episcopal Theological School in Cambridge, Mass., and pursued further studies in programs at the University of Southampton (England), the University of Chicago, and Harvard University.

Vastyan organized a Department of Humanities, following Dean Harrell’s vision, adjacent to the novel departments of Behavioral Science and Family Medicine on the ground floor, making them easily accessible for people in the College as well as for the general public. As no such academic department yet existed, nor were medical humanities or bioethics formally recognized as fields of scholarship, Vastyan worked with a blank slate in creating a vision. Over time, the department grew in faculty size and its national reputation. Nearly a half-century later, it remains a solid foundational basis of medical education in Hershey as well as having been emulated, at least in part, within medical education communities throughout the United States and across the globe.

Vastyan believed that sickness, diagnosis and medical care were inevitably rooted in a personal and cultural context. The early humanities curriculum aimed at highlighting the human values connected with health, illness and medical care; the moral and ethical questions underpinning medical practice and research; the development of a critical awareness and judgment in diagnosis, therapy and research; the religious ramifications of medical concerns; the nature of the patient-physician encounter; the history of illness, health, and medicine; and the political and economic infrastructure of health care delivery.

Vastyan crusaded for humanities in the establishment of a national organization, the Society for Health and Human Values, which was subsumed within the American Society for Bioethics and Humanities in 1998. Recognized by colleagues at many institutions, Vastyan was awarded Fulbright and Danforth Fellowships and received an Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters from the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston. Vastyan retired from Penn State Hershey in December of 1990.

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated January 10, 2015