A life in medicine and prose

Sherwin Nuland helped reshape our attitudes about death.

Yale University

Yale University

Sherwin Nuland ’55MD had a 30-year career as a surgeon at Yale before becoming an award-winning author. View full image

In How We Die: Reflections on Life’s Final Chapter, which won the National Book Award in 1994, Yale surgeon and author Sherwin Nuland ’55MD wrote in uncompromising detail about the indignities of physical death—and the unlikelihood that any of us would depart the scene with our dignity intact. Yet Nuland, who died of prostate cancer on March 3 at the age of 83, held out a measure of hope. “The greatest dignity to be found in death is the dignity of the life that preceded it,” he wrote. Nuland’s eight decades provide an eloquent testimony to that truth.

Born Shepsel Ber Nudelman in the Bronx in 1930 to Orthodox Jewish immigrants, the youngster was no stranger to death. He witnessed, at close quarters, his mother’s fatal bout of cancer, an event that propelled him toward a career in medicine. He Americanized his name, excelled in high school, college, and medical school, and became a master surgeon and teacher. Nuland practiced for 30 years, and when he put down his scalpel in 1992 to write full-time, he often used harrowing tales from the operating room to draw readers into his 14 books and numerous magazine essays. He also produced luminous biographies of Leonardo da Vinci and the Jewish philosopher Maimonides, as well as authoritative books about medical history.

Some of Nuland’s most memorable work is deeply personal, including a frank account of a bout with depression in his early 40s, so serious that he was a candidate for a lobotomy. Fortunately for Nuland and the thousands of patients he would see during his career, a resident convinced his colleagues to try a newfangled treatment, electroshock therapy, and the doctor was eventually able to resume a life in medicine.

“Shep helped reshape our attitudes about the proper way to deal with dying and death,” says Lisa Sanders ’97MD, an assistant professor of medicine and a medical columnist for the New York Times. “I was often blown away by his honesty and bravery.”

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