Sherwin Nuland, leading end-of-life thinker, dies

Sherwin Nuland MED ’55 passed away Monday in his home in Hamden, Conn.
Sherwin Nuland MED ’55 passed away Monday in his home in Hamden, Conn. Photo by Yale .

Sherwin Nuland MED ’55, a Yale surgeon and one of the nation’s lead advocates of patient-directed end-of-life care, died from prostate cancer on Monday at his home in Hamden, Conn. He was 83.

Affectionately known as “Shep” to friends and colleagues, Nuland arrived at Yale Medical School in the early 1950s. Over six decades at the University, he established a reputation as a leading scholar, beloved teacher and committed doctor.

“Next to his family, his children and me, his feeling was that the most important thing he did was to take care of sick people — he loved it,” said Sarah Nuland, his wife of 37 years. “When he walked into a room where someone was not well, where someone was frightened, where someone was sick, he could change the temperature of the room and touch them and reassure them that he was there to help them in any way that he could.”

Nuland was best known for his 1994 book “How We Die: Reflections on Life’s Final Chapter.” The book provided an intimate account of six common fatal diseases from the perspectives of patients, families and doctors.

“How We Die,” a New York Times bestseller, National Book Award winner and finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, discussed the deaths of Nuland’s brother, aunt and a longtime patient in painting an honest picture of the end of life.

“His imprint on the end of life field was absolutely seminal,” said Thomas Duffy, a professor of medicine at the Yale School of Medicine, who knew Nuland through his work and family life. “His book literally blew open the dialogue [on palliative care].”

Linda Morrison, the director of hospice and palliative medicine education at the Yale School of Medicine, said the book is widely read among those in hospice and palliative care.

Barbara Coombs Lee, the President of Compassion and Choices, a non-profit that advocates for and helps patients seek physician-assisted suicide, said that “How We Die” helped people talk honestly about death.

Nuland’s work on death shaped the way he approached the end of his own life.

“He died the way he lived, with honesty,” his wife said. “He didn’t want to leave life, he loved life and the world that he lived in.”

In addition to his scholarly and medical work, Nuland stood out as a teacher at Yale College. For several years, he taught a freshman seminar on the history of scientific medicine that received excellent reviews from his students.

Nuland taught last fall, even during his illness. His wife described his teaching at Yale as “an integral part of his life.”

“He has definitely been my role model of what a doctor should be,” said Jenny Wu ’15, who took Nuland’s freshman seminar. “That class I will always think of very fondly as the reason I’m still pre-med. Every time I want to quit, I think of that class.”

Although he spent the better part of six decades at Yale, his life started in a very different place.

Born Shepsel Ber Nudelman in the Bronx in 1930, Nuland’s upbringing was marked by illness. He was hospitalized for diphtheria, a bacterial respiratory infection, at age three and his mother died of colon cancer was he was eleven. His father, an Orthodox Jew who could not read English, suffered from what Nuland would later realize was chronic syphilis.

In kindergarten, Nuland adopted the first name Sherwin, and changed his last name to Nuland during high school. After receiving his bachelor’s degree from New York University in 1951, Nuland came to Yale Medical School, where he decided to specialize in surgery.

He graduated in 1955, and quickly rose through the ranks of Yale-New Haven Hospital, becoming the chief surgical resident in 1958.

His time at Yale was not without setbacks. In the early 1970s, Nuland was institutionalized for over a year due to severe depression. After receiving electroshock therapy, Nuland eventually recovered.

Nuland served as a surgeon at Yale-New Haven Hospital until 1992, when he turned his full attention to writing and teaching. Over the next two decades, he published an array of books on aging, death and medical history, as well as contributing to both “The American Scholar” and “The New Republic.”

“His death diminished our community in a very significant way,” Duffy said. “He was a marvelous spokesperson for all that is good in the care of our patients.”

In addition to his wife, he is survived by his four children and four grandchildren.

Comments