By Randy Fiedler
This fall, the Society for Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy (SPEP) will be presenting its inaugural award named in honor of retired Baylor University philosopher Dr. S. Kay Toombs.
The Society, established in 1962, describes itself as “a professional organization devoted to supporting philosophy inspired by continental European traditions.” With its membership of more than 2,500 people, it is one of the largest philosophical societies in the United States.
The new S. Kay Toombs Prize, which will be awarded for the first time at SPEP’s 60th annual meeting in October 2022, is given annually for an essay or paper written by junior scholars who have earned their doctorate within five years of contest submission, or to graduate students for “the best submission addressing disability, ableism, research in philosophy of disability, and/or research in critical disability studies.”
“I am honored that (SPEP) would name the award in my honor,” Toombs said.
Toombs, associate professor emeritus of philosophy, joined the faculty in Baylor’s College of Arts & Sciences in 1990 and taught for 11 years before her retirement in 2001. She was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1973, and has researched and written extensively in the areas of disability, chronic and terminal illnesses and the patient-physician relationship. Her best-known book, the award-winning “The Meaning of Illness: A Phenomenological Account of the Different Perspectives of Physician and Patient,” was published in 1992. Her most recent book, “How Then Should We Die: Two Opposing Responses to the Challenges of Suffering and Death,” explores how Christian values transform the meaning of illness and disability and preserve dignity in all circumstances.
Toombs earned a BA degree from Baylor as a University Scholar in 1982, then added an MA in philosophy from Baylor in 1984.
“With the encouragement and support of her late husband Dee, Kay graduated summa cum laude as the first woman in Baylor’s University Scholars Program,” said Dr. Robert Baird, professor emeritus of philosophy, Master Teacher and a former chair of Baylor’s philosophy department. “In 1985 she entered the PhD program in philosophy at Rice University, completing it with honors and winning recognition in 1989 as the outstanding graduate student among all departments at Rice. That same year Baylor also presented her with the Baylor University Distinguished Achievement Award.”
While she was a Baylor faculty member, Toombs helped develop the University’s first medical humanities course.
“Dr. Toombs, along with Professor Ann Miller in English and Dr. Bill Hillis in biology, developed an interdisciplinary medical humanities seminar titled ‘Literary and Philosophical Perspectives on Medicine,'” Baird said. “One of the most valued courses in the history of Baylor, the seminar was the foundation for what eventually morphed into a whole area of study, the Baylor Medical Humanities Program.”
In an interview in 2000 for the Baylor Arts & Sciences publication “Collegium,” Toombs said that her life experience has greatly influenced her work.
“The whole focus of my work has been to show the difference between the patient’s experience and the physician’s perspective,” she said. “I began this work when I spoke as a patient to physicians and was puzzled at their responses. We seemed, even though talking about the same thing, in effect to be talking about two different things.”
Dr. Todd Buras, chair and professor of philosophy in the College of Arts & Sciences, said that the naming of an award such as the one being given by SPEP is an extremely rare form of recognition of a scholar’s impact.
“The fact that Dr. Toombs’ work is still having this sort of impact, 30 years after the publication of her signature monograph, is an extraordinary testament to the depth of insight she contributed to the profession through her writings on the experience of illness,” Buras said. “Few scholars at any university leave this sort of mark on their field of inquiry. Her work continues to inspire scholarship in the philosophy of medicine, and continues to be a credit to our department and Baylor University.”