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John Barton, professor emeritus of law, dead at 72

Steve Gladfelter/VAS Professor emeritus John Barton

Professor John Barton devoted his academic career to questions at the intersection of science and the law.

John H. Barton, a retired Stanford law professor who spent 40 years at the university, died Aug. 3 at Stanford Hospital. He was 72, and had suffered a brain injury in a bicycle accident.

Barton devoted his academic career to questions at the intersection of science and the law. A fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, his scholarship focused on international law, ranging from national defense and the distribution of intellectual property rights across the developed and undeveloped world to improving the health of billions of the world’s poorest people.

He provided calm and reasoned advice to many institutions involved in making global policies. He helped arbitrate international debates on contentious issues and was known for his ability to marshal consensus through the careful examination of empirical evidence.

For example, he recommended a balanced approach to the adoption of uniform standards for the world’s patents and copyrights, based on historical analysis that revealed that a rigid global standard hindered technology growth in the Third World.  His recent work involved the transfer of technologies in the healthcare and climate change sectors, and the development of a political theory of international organization and globalization.

“John Barton was far ahead of his time in seeing the significance of and for the law of the new global economy and the development of new technology,” said Larry Kramer, the dean of the Stanford Law School. “He was a pioneer and intellectual leader in some of today’s most important fields, such as healthcare, intellectual property and the environment. He was also a wonderful teacher, colleague and friend, and he will be sorely missed.”

Barton chaired or had been a member of more than a dozen academic and international advisory commissions, most recently chairing the International Commission on Intellectual Property Rights, an independent task force created by the British government.

“John was a wonderful colleague,” said Hank Greely of the law school faculty. “He had a rigorous scientific mind that he applied to all kinds of problems, scholarly and otherwise.  He loved figuring out how new technologies and old societies would affect each other, but he was always driven not just to understand, but to make the world a better place – safer from nuclear war, safer from the ravages of disease. His too-early death is truly a tragedy.”

Professor Barton was also a Senior Fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies and a founder of what is now called the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford, a program that pioneered university teaching and research in this field.  He co-authored International Arms Control, which became the standard textbook on the subject for undergraduates in the United States and abroad.

“When I came to Stanford in 1968, John was already teaching a law school course on arms control and disarmament,” said John Lewis, an emeritus professor of Chinese politics, a CISAC faculty member and FSI Senior Fellow. “Throughout my years working with him, John Barton was my friend and inspiration.  He will truly be missed.”

Barton grew up in Batavia, Ill., west of Chicago, the youngest of three sons of Jay and Agnes Barton. 

In 1958 he received his undergraduate degree from Marquette University, where he met his wife, Julie. He served for three years in the U.S. Navy.  He then worked as an engineer with Sylvania Electronic Defense Laboratories before and during his years as a law student at Stanford. He graduated in 1968, and then worked as an associate for one year with the Washington D.C. law firm then known as Wilmer, Cutler, and Pickering, before joining the Stanford Law faculty in 1969.

“He was very gentle, very inquisitive,” said his son, John, a member of the Palo Alto City Council and the Interim Director of the Stanford Architectural Design Program. He enjoyed woodworking, painting and playing the organ.

 “If he had a vice, it was college football,” his son said.

He was an avid runner and cyclist, exercising six days a week. He was riding alone on July 14 on Arboretum Drive in Los Altos when he crashed or was stuck by a car — his son said the circumstances were unclear.

Professor Barton is survived by his wife of 50 years, Julie, and their five children, John, of Palo Alto; David, of San Francisco; Robert, of Redland, Calif.; Thomas, of Los Altos; and Anne Wilde, of San Jose.

 A memorial service is scheduled for 4 p.m.  Sunday, Aug. 16, at Immanuel Lutheran Church, 1715 Grant Road in Los Altos.

 An event to celebrate his life will be held at Stanford Law School this fall.

In lieu of flowers, the family suggests donations to Doctors Without Borders

Media Contact

Judith Romero, Associate Director of Media Relations

Stanford Law School, (650)723-2232, judith.romero@stanford.edu