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Doctors – the highest forms of human beings

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Why I had to change my name
Sherwin Nuland Surgeon
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When the application for NYU came, and it was the only college application I ever saw, in the corner of it, they had a list of what you might be interested in. There was a box to check if you were interested in the College of Law, a box to check College of Medicine or a box to check Liberal Arts, whatever. And I looked at all those things, and I thought, the only box that fits my two interests, in biology and in human behaviour and in the nature of what a human being is, was College of Medicine.

So, I ticked that. And you know, it's funny. Once I ticked that and sent that application in, I was hooked. I was going to medical school. And the year was 1947. In 1947, it was very difficult for Jewish boys to get into medical school. In fact, medical school applications had these wonderful questions on them, like, what's your mother's maiden name? What's your father's occupation? Well, my mother's maiden name was Lutzki, my father's occupation was – you know – garment worker.

I had a cousin… who was almost a generation ahead of me. His name was Will. Willy, we called him. And he had wanted to go to medical school, couldn't get into an American school, he went to Lausanne to get his degree. But in trying to get into a medical school, he had changed his name. And his brother, who became an accountant, had changed his name, too. Our family name was spelled NUDELMAN, Nudelman. It comes from a Jewish word, actually, meaning a man who works with the needle, a tailor. And so I was 16 and my cousin Willy and his brother Saul kept trying to convince my brother and me that we should change our name, and we never wanted to do it, but I got pretty pragmatic, senior year in high school, and I changed my name from Nudelman to Nuland, and of course, I had to have my father's permission, and I still have the court writ that allows… and it is signed, apparently by my father, but I know it was signed by the lawyer, who was another relative, who did this for free.

All my dental care was a relative who was free, all my medical care was Willy. When he went off to war in 1942, it was a friend of Willy's, who didn't charge us any money.

Sherwin Nuland (1930-2014) was an American surgeon and author who taught bioethics, the history of medicine, and medicine at the Yale University School of Medicine. He wrote the book How We Die which made The New York Times bestseller list and won the National Book Award. He also wrote about his own painful coming of age as a son of immigrants in Lost in America: A Journey with My Father. He used to write for The New Yorker, The New York Times, Time, and the New York Review of Books.

Listeners: Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is a London-based television producer and director who has made a number of documentary films for BBC TV, Channel 4 and PBS.

Tags: New York University

Duration: 2 minutes, 56 seconds

Date story recorded: January 2011

Date story went live: 13 September 2011