William Nolen Dies; Wrote ‘Making of a Surgeon’

Times Staff Writer

William Nolen, a small-town surgeon who viewed his profession with a critical but sympathetic eye, has died at age 58.

The author of the best-selling “The Making of a Surgeon” died Saturday at the University of Minnesota Hospital, where he had undergone quintuple bypass heart surgery Dec. 10 after suffering his third heart attack in about a week.

The author-physician who practiced surgery in the small Minnesota town of Litchfield, an hour’s drive from the hospital where he died, was a popular advocate of the comfort and serenity rural medicine offers.

“A lot of people’s illnesses are not physical,” he said on such national platforms as television’s “The Tonight Show” and “The Merv Griffin Show.”

“About half the people who go to doctors don’t need pills or operations. They have psychological problems.”


‘Got to Know Them’

And to treat them, “you’ve got to know them as individuals.” Large cities are prohibitive to that intimate treatment, he said.

He wrote and spoke out for local hospitals where patients “are not just the gall bladder in Bed 10.”

Nolen had practiced in Litchfield, a town of about 5,500 people, since 1960. Until a few years ago he was the only general surgeon in Meeker County.

He blamed the lack of a decent bedside manner he saw in many of his colleagues on shortened medical education.

“The first thing they cut out is the humanities and social sciences and all the courses not directly related to medicine,” he complained.

He encouraged medical schools to follow the lead of the University of Minnesota, which sends third-year students to spend a year with small-town general practitioners.

“The Making of a Surgeon,” Nolen’s 1970 book about his medical school experiences and subsequent residency at Bellevue Hospital, made the New York Times best-seller list.

He also wrote “Spare Parts for the Human Body,” “A Surgeon’s World,” “Healing: A Doctor in Search of a Miracle,” “Surgeon Under the Knife,” “Baby in the Bottle,” “Surgeon’s Book of Hope,” and, his last, published in 1984, “Crisis Time! Love, Marriage and the Male at Mid-Life,” an accounting of his own mid-life anguish, during which he turned briefly to pills and alcohol in an effort to sleep.