American Surgical Association Transactions

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1951 - 2020

Russell J. Nauta, M.D., 1951-2020

Dr. Russell J. Nauta died in a traffic accident on June 12, 2020 at the age of 68. Russ had retired in December 2019 from Mt. Auburn Hospital in Cambridge, MA where he had served for 22 years as Chair of Surgery. In addition, he was Vice Chair of Surgery at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Professor of Surgery at Harvard Medical School. In a singular honor, the Harvard flag was flown at half-staff over the Medical School to recognize his contributions and service.

Although he was a giant as a leader in American surgery (both literally and figuratively) and had an enormous and outsized impact on so many patients, families, students, residents, colleagues and the institutions he served, he was very soft spoken and humble about his achievements. Perhaps it was his blue collar background as the son of a sheet metal worker and a nurse in New London, CT, but he always identified with the underdog, whether it was a patient battling critical illness, or a resident from an underrepresented minority pursuing a career in surgery, or a young faculty member attempting to navigate the challenges of an academic career.

Russ loved telling stories, on rounds, or in the surgeon’s lounge, or at the professional meetings where he cherished gathering together with friends and colleagues. He had the uncanny ability to recall details about otherwise long forgotten patients. However, the best stories were the ones about him that the many students, surgery residents and colleagues would recount, that invariably highlighted his relentless dedication to his patients and their care, often resulting in hours and days of his personal attention in the operating room and at the bedside. Russ had the utmost pride in being a surgeon’s surgeon, whether it was the recognition he received for saving the life of Richard Donohue, the policeman wounded in a gun battle with the Boston Marathon Bombers, or caring for Tony Bennett during a visit to the White House, but mainly for his day to day care of patients seeking solutions.

Russ excelled as a teacher and mentor having had the benefit of a terrific set of role models at Wesleyan University, Georgetown University School of Medicine, and the Brigham and Women’s Hospital Department of Surgery. He excelled as a surgical resident in the early ‘80’s at Harvard and the Brigham and was selected to serve as a Chief Resident and the Arthur Tracy Cabot Fellow. Following residency, Russ returned to the Department of Surgery at Georgetown in Washington, DC. He soon built a practice of over 800 major cases annually and was appointed as the Director of the Surgery Residency and Chief of the Division of General Surgery, with promotion to Full Professor with Tenure. However, he prized most the relationships he developed with students (over 50 per year sought his career guidance) and residents, many of who are currently leaders in American Surgery. In recognition of his contributions, Georgetown established the Nauta Award for Outstanding Faculty Teaching.

Russ was recruited back to Boston in 1998 to serve as the Chair of Surgery at Mt. Auburn Hospital and on the faculty as Professor of Surgery at Harvard. His academic career blossomed with a long list of publications, membership in many Surgery associations and societies (including President of the Boston Surgical Society), and leadership of countless hospital and university committees. His leadership and dedication to Mount Auburn, Harvard Medical School, and the Department of Surgery at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center translated into unparalleled achievements and success. He relished solving difficult problems whether it was the complicated challenges of individual patients referred from all across New England or the complexities of helping lead a topnotch academic surgery training program. It was not uncommon to see Russ rushing in scrubs from the Operating Room to lead an important discussion in the Board Room. In recognition of his contributions, Mt Auburn Hospital has established the Nauta Visiting Professor Lectureship in Surgery.

Despite the many accolades, honors, and achievements, his own primary identity for himself was as that of a "family man". He was married to the love of his life and best friend, Claire for 46 years. He loved the role of Dad to daughter, Dr. Allison Nauta and her husband, James and son, Russell Nauta and his wife, Rebecca, but most of all being Grandad to his three grandchildren.