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Sherwin Nuland, surgeon who demystified death in ‘How We Die’ book, dies at 83

March 7, 2014 - 12:05am

Sherwin Nuland, the surgeon and man of letters who unshrouded death in “How We Die,” a best-selling volume that received the National Book Award and became a classic of medical literature, died March 3 at his home in Hamden, Conn. He was 83.

The cause was prostate cancer, said his son Drew Nuland.

Sherwin Nuland was known to fellow doctors, writers and thousands of readers as a sort of modern-day Maimonides — part physician, part philosopher and the repository for the wisdom in medicine as he saw it practiced.

He spent years as a surgeon at Yale-New Haven Hospital, then turned to writing and produced a series of books that illuminated how human life evolves, and ultimately ends.

“How We Die: Reflections on Life’s Final Chapter” received the 1994 National Book Award for nonfiction and was translated into numerous languages. The book presents accounts of death by various causes — heart attack, cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, even homicide — in such raw detail that some readers said they were unable to finish it.

The publication of the book coincided with an intensifying societal debate about death with dignity, as it was called — an outcome, in Nuland’s view, that was exceedingly difficult to achieve.

“It’s unnatural to believe death usually has a beauty and a concordance and is usually a coming together of your life’s work,” he once told Newsweek magazine. “It leads to frustration for the patient. And it leaves grieving families convinced they did something wrong.”

Nuland’s work transcended death to encompass the marvels of a healthy human organism, a topic that he addressed in “The Wisdom of the Body” (1997), later republished as “How We Live.”

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