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Author-surgeon Sherwin Nuland ’55MD dies at 83

Sherwin Nuland ’55MD, the surgeon-turned-author who was a clinical professor of surgery at Yale for nearly 30 years, died on Monday at his home in Hamden at the age of 83. His daughter Amelia told the New York Times that the cause was prostate cancer.

Few people had contemplated death as seriously as Nuland. His 1994 book How We Die: Reflections on Life's Final Chapter was a frank look at the mechanics of disease and the failure of the human body, with elements of memoir, operating-room drama, and advocacy of a more humane brand of medicine. The book spent 17 weeks on the Times bestseller list and won the National Book Award.

How We Die was the third of Nuland's 12 books, written after he gave up life as a surgeon in 1992. He was disillusioned with the way managed care was "eroding our relationship with patients," he told Bruce Fellman in a 2000 Yale Alumni Magazine profile.

A native of the Bronx who was born Shepsel Ber Nudelman, Nuland changed his surname while a student at Bronx High School of Science. He graduated from NYU and entered the Yale School of Medicine in 1951, but he retained a humanistic interest in history that would later lead him to write biographies of Maimonides and Leonardo da Vinci. “Several of my professors had a passion for medical history and referred to the subject on rounds,” Nuland told Fellman, adding that it was easy for him to get hooked. “I’m a Jew after all—we’re made of the memories we’ve inherited from thousands of generations. My sense of history is a sense of continuity.”

The soft-spoken, intellectual Nuland had not been inclined to consider a specialty in surgery, thinking it the province of "big men who drove fin-tailed Cadillacs, smoked cigars, and talked about women." But he was recruited by the chief surgical resident at Yale–New Haven, and he ended up specializing in gastroenterological surgery. (“We have had a rewarding relationship, the belly and I,” he told Fellman.)

For Nuland, technical prowess was only one part of medicine: “The skill with your hands, the skill with a diagnosis—these are a kind of magic—but the ideal doctor, the true caregiver, also needs the skills of the heart: the ability to create the aura that a patient is important to the physician and they’re both enmeshed in a journey they’re taking together.”

Nuland is survived by his wife Sarah and four children: Victoria, Andrew ('86), William, and Amelia.


The Yale Alumni Magazine is published by Yale Alumni Publications Inc., an alumni-based nonprofit that is not run by Yale University. Its content does not necessarily reflect the views of the university administration.

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