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The Historic Gathering: Founding the Institute

The Institute was established in 2001 in Glidden House in Cleveland’s University Circle at a gathering of 12 renowned “research area consultants” (aka “RACS”), all of whom were reasonably open to Sir John’s vision and went on to achieve great renown. The group included: Greg Fricchione, MD, who became Director of the Benson-Henry Mind-Body Institute at Harvard and Mass General; Byron Johnson PhD, now Director of the Institute for Studies of Religion at Baylor; Jeff Levin PhD, MPH, now the foremost researcher on epidemiological and clinical research on spiritual love, whose pioneering research beginning in the 1980s helped create the field of religion, spirituality, love, and health; Margaret Poloma, PhD, who became the nation’s most significant sociologist of prayer, and would soon be joined by the great young sociologist Matthew T. Lee PhD, who has the courage and skill to carry our work forward to a new generation; Michael E. McCullough PhD, now one of the world’s foremost positive psychologists studying forgiveness and gratitude in relation to health and well-being; young theologian Thomas Jay Oord, PhD, recognized now worldwide as one of the top several philosophical theologians making progress at the interface of science and unlimited love. Esther Sternberg, MD, the renowned co-founder of psychoneuroimmunology at the NIH was also in the group. Susan Wentz, MD was another original participant in the Institute. She was my close colleague at Case Western Reserve University Medical School as we focused on compassionate care in medical education.” We all worked together to craft the Institute’s first formal “request for proposals” that summer. Applications came rolling in from innumerable esteemed researchers and scholars. We requested research proposals in genetics and evolution, spirituality and theology, sociology and psychology, child development, health and well-being, and world peace between religions.

Cathy and John Lewis, Joni Marra, Kathy Pender, Judy and Richard T. Watson, and other Cleveland philanthropic luminaries were present and enthused. We have had others join us: Ensign Cowell, who keeps us thinking about the love of God, neighbor, and nature; Jo-Ann Triner, who has contributed with her focus on love expressed as Calling. Dick and Judy Watson, old friends from church, went on to endow the Richard T. Watson Chair in Science and Religion at Harvard Divinity School.

To date the researchers working at the interface of spirituality and science in association with the Institute have produced more than 1,500 widely-cited articles in the best peer-reviewed journals. As President, I have also been very active. My 2005 article, “Altruism and Health: It’s Good to Be Good,” was published in the International Journal of Behavioral Medicine. It has now been cited more than 1,200 times and serves as a benchmark for the field. My influential popular book (with Jill Neimark), Why Good Things Happen to Good People: How to Live a Happier, Healthier and Longer Life by the Simple Act of Giving (Random House/Broadway Books, 2007) was published two years later. As Sir John always said, “Stephen, never forget that love heals illness, mental and physical.” He also faxed, “Be sure not just to study human love, which might be considered arrogant, but study the love that made humans.”

Sustaining the Works of Love

When the Institute was formed, I was a full professor at the Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine (1988–2008) and an NIH-supported researcher focused on caregivers and their love for “deeply forgetful people.” I have taught medical humanism and compassionate care in the nation’s leading medical schools since 1988. Since its inception, it has been clear that the Institute needs to be engaged in effective “works of love” in order to have credibility, and this was my path.

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