Eliot Freidson, an emeritus professor of sociology at New York University and a founding figure in the sociology of the professions, died on Dec. 14 at the Zen Hospice in San Francisco. Freidson, 82, had suffered from non-Hodgkins lymphoma since January 2005. He had been a visiting professor in the Department of Social and Behavioral Science at the University of California, San Francisco since his retirement from NYU.
Freidson’s path-breaking and classic study, Profession of Medicine (Dodd, Mead, 1970 and Chicago, 1988), is considered “a landmark study in medical sociology,” according to the Journal of Health and Social Behavior. It received the Sorokin Award from the American Sociological Association for the most outstanding scholarly contribution to the discipline of the prior two years, and it has been translated into four languages.
Freidson attended the University of Maine from 1941 to 1942, then entered the University of Chicago. In 1943 he joined the U.S. Army as a private, was trained in the German language and sent to Italy. There he worked with British Intelligence, pinpointing for Allied bombers the locations of German radio transmitters. After the war he returned to the University of Chicago, where he obtained a Ph.B., an M.A, and, in 1952, a Ph.D.
Following three post-doctoral fellowships, Freidson accepted a professorship in sociology at the City College of New York in 1961. He moved to NYU in 1961, serving as chair of the sociology department from 1975 to 1978. His colleagues described him as a dedicated mentor of graduate students and junior colleagues at NYU and elsewhere.
In the course of a long and distinguished career, he authored 12 books and published nearly 100 journal articles. The books include Doctoring Together: A Study of Professional Social Control (Elsevier, 1976); Professional Powers: A Study of the Institutionalization of Formal Knowledge (University of Chicago, 1986); Medical Work in America: Selected Essays (Yale University, 1989); Professionalism Reborn. Theory, Prophesy and Policy (University of Chicago, 1994); and Professionalism, The Third Logic (University of Chicago, 2001). His work demonstrates how professions both shape and are influenced by the societies in which they develop, a significant undertaking given how the growth of the system of professions has transformed modern societies.
Freidson’s last book, Professionalism, The Third Logic (University of Chicago, 2001), compared the professions in five countries. It was an attempt to establish “professionalism” as a third model for the organization of work, one that could stand alongside Adam Smith’s concept of the “free market” and Max Weber’s “bureaucracy”.
Freidson received numerous honors and awards, including fellowships from the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Guggenheim Foundation, and Stanford’s Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences. In 1972 he was elected to the National Academy of Sciences. England’s Cambridge University awarded him the prestigious Pitt Professorship of American History and Institutions for 1989 to 1990. His death prevented the awarding of an honorary Ph.D. degree by Nottingham University in December of this year.
Freidson was an acute and dispassionate observer. Discussing the oversupply of physicians in the mid-1980s, he observed in The New York Times in 1986, “The squeeze is most likely to affect those specialties that are extremely lucrative, like cardio and orthopedic surgeons. People will be more likely to go into internal medicine and pediatrics.”
Ten years later, data from the National Resident Matching Program showed that a majority of medical school graduates selected the primary care fields of family practice, pediatrics, and internal medicine.
Freidson was born February 20, 1923 in Boston, Massachusetts. He is survived by his wife Helen Giambruni, his children, Jane Freidson of New York City and Matthew Freidson of Lewes, England, and four grandchildren. A third child, Oliver, died in 1976.