The Aging Surgeon

Mark R. Katlic, MD; JoAnn Coleman, DNP, ACNP-BC


Annals of Surgery. 2014;260(2):199-201. 

In This Article

Abstract and Introduction


Ferdinand Sauerbruch (1875–1951) was one of the world's greatest surgeons. As a brilliant diagnostician and exquisite technician, he attracted to his clinic and operating theaters at Charité Hospital in Berlin a stream of students and patients from across Europe, Russia, and the United Kingdom.

In his late 60s, however, Sauerbruch began to change. Colleagues noted that he "had sudden changes in mood and periods of forgetfulness." He "struck assistants with instruments during operations"—operations, which were "performed with growing clumsiness, dragging tissues and tearing blood vessels." The faculty and administration of the Charité, warmed by the reflective glow and financial flames of his international fame, failed to act; individual efforts by his friends suggesting retirement were met with flat refusal. A prominent actor died from bleeding during a simple herniorrhaphy; a child succumbed when Sauerbruch failed to restore gastrointestinal continuity after a stomach resection. He finally relented in 1949, at age 74, when threatened with a humiliating public dismissal.

Even then, Sauerbruch had little insight. He continued to operate at his home, with disastrous results. His 1953 autobiography is titled Master Surgeon.