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Scientists' Nightstand: Sherwin Nuland

Frank Diller

Sherwin Nuland, who teaches bioethics and clinical medicine at Yale University School of Medicine, practiced surgery at Yale–New Haven Hospital for 30 years. He is the author of several books, including How We Die: Reflections on Life's Final Chapter, which won the National Book Award in nonfiction in 1994; Lost in America: A Journey with My Father; and, most recently, The Doctors' Plague: Germs, Childbed Fever, and the Strange Story of Ignác Semmelweis.

Sherwin NulandClick to Enlarge Image

What books are you currently reading (or have you just finished reading) for your work or for pleasure?
The Pursuit of Perfection, by Sheila and David Rothman, because I'm reviewing it for the New York Review of Books. Also, Napoleon, by Paul Johnson, for pleasure and because of my interest in history and the 19th century.

Why did you choose them, and what do you think of them?
I loved the Johnson and found the Rothman very informative.

When and where do you usually read (specific location, time of day, etc.)?
Trains, planes and comfortable chairs at home. No special time.

Who are your favorite writers (fiction, nonfiction or poetry)? Why?
Dickens, because of the plots and the character studies.
Shakespeare, because of the poetry and the character studies.
William Osler, because he inspires me as a physician.
W. H. Auden, because of his directness and accessibility as a poet.

What are the three best books you've ever read? Explain.
Any Dickens, for the reasons given above.
Civilization and Its Discontents, by Sigmund Freud, because it explained the world to me.
The Source, by James Michener, because it told the history of the Jewish people in a way that was fascinating, accurate and memorable.

What book has influenced you most? Explain how.
Arrowsmith, by Sinclair Lewis, because it confirmed my decision to be a doctor.

Name three books you want to read but haven't gotten to yet.
Ulysses, by James Joyce.
The Invisible Man, by H. G. Wells.
The Education of Henry Adams, by Henry Adams.

What book recommendations do you have for young readers?
Everyone must read Dickens.
Read the biographies in the Lipper-Viking short biography series.
Read the essays of H. L. Mencken.
Read Jack London, Mark Twain, Sinclair Lewis, Paul de Kruif.

What science book recommendations do you have for nonscientists?
Hunger Fighters and Microbe Hunters, by Paul de Kruif.
Vital Dust, by Christian de Duve.
The Beauty of the Beastly, by Natalie Angier.
Any book by Lewis Thomas.
Any book by Richard Rhodes.
The Ascent of Man, by Jacob Bronowski.

Name one book in your discipline that you would you recommend for scientists outside your field. Explain your choice.
The Century of the Surgeon, by Jurgen Thorwald, because it is a semi-fictionalized and very accurate history of some of the great moments and men of surgery. It is beautifully written, absorbing and makes a reader want to learn more.

One immodest note: A scientist outside the field of medicine who wants to learn its history should read not only Roy Porter's The Greatest Benefit to Mankind but my own Doctors: The Biography of Medicine. The two books approach the topic from entirely different perspectives, and I promise that either or both will make any reader regret that his/her own discipline does not have such a fascinating past.

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