Moving Us Closer To Osler
A Miller Coulson Academy of Clinical Excellence Initiative

Takeaways From “The Making of a Surgeon”


Reading this book while I was in training inspired me to pursue a surgical career. Rereading it years later, I’m reminded of the importance of treating all patients with dignity.  

In his 1970 bestseller, “The Making of a Surgeon,” Dr. William Nolen shares a captivating account of his training at New York City’s famed Bellevue Hospital. Reading it helped solidify my own interest in becoming a surgeon. I was fascinated by the clinical details of the patients and the technical aspects of the procedures. Nolen’s description of the pace and character of Bellevue, an urban teaching hospital, sounded similar to that of Charity Hospital of New Orleans where I did my medical student surgery rotations. I loved my experience there and the book made me appreciate it even more. 


Nolen described anxious moments when, under supervision, he struggled through his first surgery. It was reassuring that it was ok to be uneasy during training and that there was a learning process of “watch one, do one, teach one.” 


One line stood out to me. A professor said he didn’t care if an intern got straight A’s in med school, but that he wanted someone who would get out of bed at night to see a patient. As someone with a less than perfect academic record, I believed I could make up for my grades by working hard on the wards. 


Nolen trained at Bellevue in the 1950s. While reviewing his book this summer, I took note of lessons that have relevance today, such as the need for diversity. All surgeons at the time were men. While the profession is more diverse now, more progress is required, especially in my field of orthopedic surgery. 


“The Making of a Surgeon” also provides examples of the timeless need to treat all patients with dignity. In one instance, a fatigued Dr. Nolen insulted a destitute man with frostbite and blamed him for it. The patient berated the doctor for his judgmental attitude and began to walk out. Nolen realized he’d been looking at the man as a bum instead of a human being who needed compassion. He swallowed his pride, apologized, and was able to repair the relationship, give care, and gain an appreciation for the man’s social challenges. 


William Nolen passed away in 1986 at the age of 58. His book is his legacy, with reflections that are still pertinent to those learning the art of surgery today. 







This piece expresses the views solely of the author. It does not necessarily represent the views of any organization, including Johns Hopkins Medicine.