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July 24/31, 2018

The 50-Year Legacy of the Harvard Report on Brain Death

Author Affiliations
  • 1Center for Bioethics, Department of Anesthesiology, Critical Care, and Pain Medicine, Boston Children’s Hospital, Harvard Medical School, Boston, Massachusetts
  • 2Mitchell Hamline School of Law, St Paul, Minnesota
  • 3Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts
  • 4Faculty of Medicine, Harvard University, Boston, Massachusetts
JAMA. 2018;320(4):335-336. doi:10.1001/jama.2018.6990

On August 5, 1968, an ad hoc committee at Harvard Medical School published a landmark report that laid the groundwork for a new definition of death, based on neurological criteria.1 The authors, under the leadership of anesthesiologist Henry Beecher, stated that their primary purpose was to “define irreversible coma as a new criterion for death.” The concept of brain death has guided clinical practice for 50 years even though vigorous debate about its legitimacy has never ceased.

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