Renée C. Fox, a leading scholar of medical sociology, a field she was instrumental in creating in an era when women had a difficult time being heard in academia, died on Sept. 23 at a hospice center in Philadelphia. She was 92.
The cause was leukemia, according to an email sent to colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania, where she was an emerita professor of sociology.
Professor Fox was among the first to use the principles and methods of sociology to examine medical care and training, and to shed light on the social contexts of health and illness. Her work was informed by her experience with polio as a teenager, and her extensive travels and research in Africa, Asia and Europe.
Dr. Robert Klitzman, director of the master of bioethics program at Columbia University, said that when Professor Fox started her career in the 1950s, medical care was still seen through a strictly scientific lens, and that ethical, social and cultural issues were ignored.
“Her work, and that of others who followed her, has become ever more influential,” he said by email, “helping to create the field of bioethics and dramatically altering how doctors, patients, scholars, policymakers and others look at medical care, institutions and research, and patients’ lives.”
Professor Fox’s book “Experiment Perilous: Physicians and Patients Facing the Unknown,” published in 1959, is considered a foundational work of medical sociology. For two different five-month periods she observed the metabolic research ward at Peter Bent Brigham Hospital in Boston, looking not only at the doctors and their sometimes conflicting roles as both physicians and researchers, but also at the patients and how they viewed their situation and their treatments. It was observational scholarship at a very personal level.
“She’s not a doctor exactly,” a favorite patient would say when introducing her to others on the ward. “She’s not a patient exactly. But she falls somewhere in between.”
Professor Fox examined the sociology around human organ transplants in two books written with Judith P. Swazey — “The Courage to Fail: A Social View of Organ Transplants and Dialysis” (1974) and “Spare Parts: Organ Replacement in American Society” (1992). Transplants were in their infancy early in her career, but by the second book she had become concerned that doctors were harvesting organs too quickly and intruding on the traditional dying process. She called it “an ignoble form of medically rationalized cannibalism” in a 1993 interview in The Washington Post.
In one of her earliest and most influential essays, “Training for Uncertainty” (1957), Professor Fox took up a subject that she would revisit throughout her career, the idea that the more sophisticated medicine became, the more questions it raised.
“‘Uncertainty’ — if there’s something to be chiseled on my tombstone, that would be it,” she told the Penn Arts & Sciences Alumni Newsletter in 2002.
Renée Claire Fox was born on Feb. 15, 1928, in Manhattan. Her father, Fred, founded P.F. Fox & Co. Investment Securities, and her mother, Henrietta (Gold) Fox, encouraged her educational progress, although she herself had only a primary-school education.
During the summer after her freshman year at Smith College, she began feeling ill, and her doctor diagnosed her symptoms as polio. She never forgot the date: Aug. 15, 1945, otherwise known as V-J Day, when Japan surrendered, ending World War II.
“From my bed in our apartment,” she wrote, “through the open windows, I could hear the jubilant crowds in the street.”
Polio is highly contagious, and finding a hospital that would accept her took some doing. She was taken to Sydenham Hospital in Harlem, which served mostly Black patients. Her polio was severe, affecting her swallowing and breathing, which she could barely do by the time she was hospitalized.
In her memoir, Professor Fox paid tribute to a Black nurse who got her through the first night. “I do not know her name,” she wrote. “But I do know that I survived that night because she put her head beside mine on the pillow where I lay, and breathed every breath with me.”
After a monthslong hospitalization and extensive physical therapy, she was able to walk again and returned to Smith, earning a bachelor’s degree in 1949. In 1954 she earned a Ph.D. in sociology at Radcliffe College, a woman’s college before it merged with Harvard University; her doctoral thesis became the basis of “Experiment Perilous.”
Professor Fox initially received no teaching offers and took a research position at Columbia University before joining the faculty at Barnard College and teaching there for 12 years. She moved to the University of Pennsylvania in 1969 and taught there until she retired in 1998.
Professor Fox’s other books included “Doctors Without Borders: Humanitarian Quests, Impossible Dreams of Médecins Sans Frontières” (2014), “The Sociology of Medicine: A Participant Observer’s View” (1989) and an essay collection, “Explorations of a Mind-Traveling Sociologist,” published in November.
She is survived by a sister, Rosa F. Gellert.
A 1964 article in The New York Times found Professor Fox analyzing something different from her usual subject: Beatlemania. It was just after the Beatles made their scream-inducing American debut, and she offered a theory as to why the group was so popular.
Much of the Beatles’ appeal, she argued, stemmed from their seeming contradictions. They were men who had feminine characteristics, especially their floppy hair; they seemed to be both adults and children; they were down-to-earth yet wore Edwardian clothes; they were from lower-class backgrounds but were received by royalty.
“There is a Chaplinesque quality to their style,” she said. “They convey the image of absurd little men in an absurd, big world.”