Health TED Talks

Remembering Sherwin Nuland

Surgeon, author and speaker Sherwin Nuland died on March 3, 2014, at age 83. The author of a dozen books — including the award-winning How We Die, a clear-eyed look at life’s last chapter — Nuland came to TED in 2001 to tell a story he’d never told before.

The world-renowned surgeon, clinical professor of surgery at Yale and best-selling author began his talk with a history of mental health and mental illness … and gradually began to weave in his own story, of a depression so crippling, so impossible to shift, that in his 40s he was in line for a lobotomy. But his young doctor made a bold suggestion, and then stuck to it in the face of widespread doubt: Nuland would try electric shock therapy.

It’s a stunning talk. TED’s own Tom Rielly, who saw the talk live, remembers:

“Sherwin’s talk took us on a journey into the hell of his darkest depression and his improbable journey back. From literally sleeping in the gutter to recovering his life via a caring young doctor who kept him from being lobotomized, Nuland’s powerful storytelling nearly stopped the Monterey conference room from breathing, and then ultimately allowed a tearful catharsis. Nuland affected me more powerfully than any talk before or since. Having lived with the illness for more than 30 years I know how easily it could have been I who was prostrate on the street. I will always be grateful to him for showing me the power of honesty even about the things that terrify.”

And our Content Director, Kelly Stoetzel, wrote:

“[Nuland] made himself really vulnerable on the stage. He talked about something that his colleagues didn’t know about — that he had suffered from depression so severe that he became catatonic and had undergone electroshock therapy to heal. It made me cry. I thought, ‘This is the weirdest thing, I’m at a conference and I’m crying — I don’t know if I love that or hate that!’”

TED’s Curator, Chris Anderson, sums it up:

“[Nuland’s] talk at TED 12 years ago remains one of the most powerful moments in the conference’s history. He combined brilliant storytelling with remarkable personal candor and vulnerability. He inspired many at the time, and continues to do so today.”