Catherine Kerr (1964-2016) passed away on November 12th 2016, at the age of 52, succumbing to a bone marrow cancer that she fought with great courage for over two decades. Catherine was a Harvard neuroscientist before being nominated Director of Translational Neuroscience in the Contemplative Studies Initiative at Brown University, where she created the Embodied Neuroscience lab. Her well-viewed TEDx talk is devoted to mindfulness and the brain.
Photo by: Tenzin Choejor OHHDL
I first met Cathy in 2006, at the former Osher Center for Alternative Medicine at Harvard, when she invited me to give a talk on Levinas’ ethics. Our exchanges followed, and ultimately brought us to work together during my 17 month-long Cambridge stay. At the beginning our exchanges were informal, grabbing a sandwich at the MIT Stata Center while discussing human suffering and our possibilities to build bridges in research to provide relief and better understanding of the pained. And even though Cathy was immediately open about her cancer, it was never an issue compared to the achievements lying ahead.
With the support of Ted Kaptchuk, we then created the International and Interdisciplinary Group on Pain and Suffering, a group of 3 people whose existence was only proven by a document on Harvard letterhead. Once my stay was over, and upon my return to Europe, Cathy and I started contacting scholars all over the world in order to insufflate life to our concept and ideas. Our group, that includes 30 members, was formalized with the award I received from the European Science Foundation, and that allowed us to organize two international conferences; Cathy participated in the first one and her talk is available on our website.
I loved Cathy’s profound wisdom and her sense of excellence, combined with deep acceptance of human nature with all its weakness. I was mesmerized by her language and brilliance, and working together was always an exhilarating experience, giving the impression we may actually change the world with our small-scale endeavor.
At some point Cathy halted her contribution. This is the event I would like to talk about, as her renouncement was an important lesson for me on life priorities.
In 2011, five years after we first met, I returned to Harvard in order complete our paper. Upon my arrival, Cathy announced that she would no longer continue with the program, as her involvement stopped at the creation of the group. I remember that we were in front of our salads, sitting on high chairs, when she declared to me that she was not even sure of completing our paper. Cathy generously invited me to stay in her house so that we could work together. To my disappointment, it was not a very fruitful time, and even though Cathy did not say anything, I had the impression that she was weak and overloaded.
One morning she left the door of her daily Qi Gong practice open, and when I was searching for her around the house, she invited me in. Through the doorway, I was struck by her body full of sweat, dripping down her face and arms. I was surprised at the ability of a person to bring herself to deploy such a physical effort while sitting down in a yoga position. Cathy then explained to me that she managed to maintain herself healthy and fight cancer through this daily management of her bodily energy. That was six years ago and I was enthusiastic when I later learnt about the “Vitality Project” she initiated at the Embodied Neuroscience lab, devoted to a clinical trial she designed for investigating the healing role of Qi Gong in cancer survivors.
Cathy’s open demonstration that very morning taught me that a person with an illness cannot fight a death sentence, but can extend his or her time with the right balance between the physical and the mental.
We never completed our paper because Cathy was worried that without experimental studies, our claims could not be published. Much work on alexithymia has been completed since, and I am glad to confirm that her foresight, direction and views were proven right.
My beloved Cathy, your personal and intellectual giving will not be forgotten, it was my honor and my happiness to have known you. I express my deep condolences to Jonathan Kranes, your wonderful life-long husband, to your family, and to the academic community that allowed you to make such ground breaking research.
For information and donations on the “Catherine Kerr Award for Courageous and Compassionate Science”:
Written by Smadar Bustan for the gathering “Celebrating the life of Catherine Kerr”