March 6, 2014 5:53 AM EST

During his 30 years as a surgeon and professor at Yale, Sherwin Nuland was on the front line of the battle against death, a formidable, and in the end always overpowering, enemy. Nuland was also a writer, and in 1994, seeking to demythologize death and make end-of-life care more rational, he published How We Die, a best seller bluntly detailing the physical circumstances of most deaths. A National Book Award winner, it spurred a nationwide conversation about end-of-life decisions. Insisting that few deaths could be truly described as dignified, Nuland wrote, “The dignity we seek in dying must be found in the dignity with which we have lived our lives.”

After retiring as a surgeon, Nuland, who died March 3 at 83, taught bioethics and the history of medicine at Yale, where he argued that the U.S. has an obligation to make every disadvantaged person its patient. “There is a great deal of argument about whether we, as the great nation that we are, should be the policeman of the world,” he said in a 2003 TED talk. “But there should be virtually no argument about whether we should be the world’s healer.”


This appears in the March 17, 2014 issue of TIME.

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