Surgeon and writer Atul Gawande awarded Lewis Thomas Prize

by LESLIE CHURCH

Among the limits of modern medicine is the element of human error. Atul Gawande, surgeon, professor, writer and public health researcher, reminds us that doctors make mistakes. But as an advocate for reducing error and increasing efficiency in health care, he also wants to help the profession make fewer of them.

Dr. Gawande, who practices general and endocrine surgery at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, was honored with the 2014 Lewis Thomas Prize for Writing about Science at a ceremony in Rockefeller’s Caspary Auditorium in March.

“Through his books, Dr. Gawande achieves the ideal of the Lewis Thomas Prize, which is to write about science in a way that inspires others to think about it from a new perspective,” said Mike Young, vice president for academic affairs and head of the Laboratory of Genetics, who spoke at the award ceremony. “Dr. Gawande is not only changing the way we think about best practices in medicine, but also about the U.S. healthcare system.”

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Bestselling surgeon. Gawande (left), whose books explore ways to improve patient outcomes, received the Lewis Thomas Prize, presented by Vice President for Academic Affairs Mike Young, at a ceremony in Caspary Auditorium in March.

The Lewis Thomas Prize was established in 1993 by the university’s Board of Trustees and honors “the rare individual who bridges the worlds of science and the humanities — whose voice and vision can tell us about science’s aesthetic and philosophical dimensions, providing not merely new information but cause for reflection, even revelation.” It was named after its first recipient, writer, educator and physician-scientist Lewis Thomas. Past recipients of the award include Oliver Sacks, Jared Diamond and E.O. Wilson. Last year’s prize honored research physiologist Frances Ashcroft, who wrote The Spark of Life, in which she explains electricity in the body through experiences the reader can relate to. 

Dr. Gawande’s books have all been New York Times bestsellers. Complications, a collection of stories about his experiences as a surgical resident, was a finalist for the National Book Award in 2002. In it, Dr. Gawande, who is also a professor of surgery at Harvard Medical School and a professor in the department of health policy and management at the Harvard School of Public Health, uses a disarming style to detail the sometimes alarming accounts of medical mishaps and miracles.

Better, which was selected as one of the 10 best books of 2007 by Amazon.com, and The Checklist Manifesto, published in 2009, are explorations of ways to improve patient outcomes, including how a simple checklist in the operating room can have profound effects on health.

After earning his B.S. from Stanford University, Dr. Gawande received a master’s degree in philosophy, politics and economics from Balliol College at Oxford University, where he was Rhodes Scholar. He earned his M.D. from Harvard Medical School and his M.P.H. from the Harvard School of Public Health.

Dr. Gawande was a senior adviser in the Department of Health and Human Services in the Clinton administration. He is executive director of Ariadne Labs, a joint venture of Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard School of Public Health, and is cofounder and chairman of Lifebox, an international not-for-profit. He has received two National Magazine Awards, an Academy Health’s Impact Award and a MacArthur Fellowship, and he has been named one of the world’s hundred most influential thinkers by Foreign Policy and TIME.