A socially conscious scholar: Patricia Illingworth

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By Peg Lopata, Contributing Writer

Patricia Illingworth
Photo/Akos Szilvasi/ www.secondfloorstudio.com

Cambridge – Ambition alone can propel us towards success.  But sometimes ambition is combined with something else. For Patricia Illingworth, 66, a professor at Northeastern University in Boston, that something else was injustice. 

“I was raised by a single mother who did not receive child support. She frequently worked two or three jobs at a time to support my brother and me.  I had a very deep sense of the injustice of her situation,” Illingworth said. “I believe it was one of the main reasons I studied ethics and law.  I was sure there had to be a better way.  I wanted to figure that out and be able to explain it.” 

A native Canadian, Illingworth got her bachelor’s degree at York University in her hometown, Toronto, Ontario, then a law degree from Boston University School of Law and a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of California, San Diego.  She didn’t plan on her current vocation, but she loved ethics from the start.  She has held fellowships at Harvard Law SchoolHarvard Medical School, Rice University, Houston, TX and recently been a senior fellow at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School in Cambridge. She’s the author of seven books on such topics as immigrants and health policy, issues in drug development, and AIDs.  As her website explains, “The common thread that runs through Illingworth’s work is a commitment to making the world a better place for all people.”

Another injustice that played a key role in the development of Illingworth’s career was how the gay community was affected by the HIV-AIDs epidemic in the 1980s.  

“I was very interested in how the HIV-AIDs epidemic was impacting them,” she said. “My first book was, ‘AIDs and the Good Society’ (Routledge, 1990), which among other things, argued for same sex marriage long before it was legal.”  

Besides advocating for society’s underdogs, Illingworth has many other talents and skills.  She especially loves teaching.  Some of the courses she teaches are bioethics, business ethics and global justice. Whether it’s teaching, researching or writing, she aims to get people thinking in order to bring about a more just society. 

“Understanding what our moral responsibilities are in helping other people is very important to me,” explained Illingworth.

For this professor, helping others includes creating solidarity and community.  But she’s more than just a thinker with great ideas.  She puts her ideas into action.  For the past 11 years, Illingworth, together with photographer and neighbor, Akos Szilvasi, have hosted an annual photo shoot on their street in Cambridge. They originally organized the event, which includes refreshments in Illingworth’s driveway, to meet neighbors. It’s evolved into a day to catch up with neighbors, as well as capture the moment in memorable photos by Szilvasi.  

As quoted in an article by Sara Frazier in Wicked Local, Cambridge, Oct. 3, 2019, Illingworth stated, “Most of the photos highlight friendship and family.  Those are what bring meaning to the lives of everyone, regardless of our differences.”

Connections with others, educating and informing—that’s what Illingworth is all about. But she also enjoys long walks with her Portuguese water dog, Panda, traveling, eating out and sampling creative food.  Spending time with friends and family, trips to Cape Cod, museums, and the visual and performing arts are also a big part of her life.  

Her philosophy of life is simple and informed by her desire to create a just world. 

“People are more important than stuff and accomplishments. What we can do together is far more fun and likely to be more fruitful than what I can do alone.  I try to work with people, whether friends, family, colleagues, editors, or collaborators to create something that will have some impact and make the world a more just and equal place for everyone.”