Israel’s Oldest Working General Practitioner Dies at 97

December 10, 2018

7 min read

Moses worked until his dying day, at the age of 120, yet he didn’t suffer the ailments of old age – his eyes were not weak nor was his strength gone.

Dr. Cyril B. Sherer did not make it to the proverbial 120 years of Moses, but the general practitioner in Jerusalem – who treated many tens of thousands of people in Britain, Japan, New Zealand and Israel over more than 70 years – did manage take care of patients during decades when other physicians retire to play golf and play with their grandchildren. He died earlier this month at the age of 97 when a aortic valve was inserted into his coronary arteries but his heart was not strong enough for him to survive.

Sherer was apparently the oldest GP in Israel to continue to work as a physician. With his home and office a few blocks away from Jerusalem’s famed King David Hotel, he was often called to treat famous people like former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev, the Dalai Lama, famed violinist Isaac Stern, former US president Jimmy Carter and his wife Rosalynn Carter, cellist Pablo Casals and others. Foreign diplomats and journalists living in Jerusalem, as well as innumerable people who were not well-known, came to his private clinic to be examined, diagnosed and treated.

Born in London, he started medical school in 1939 at the breakout of World War II. Antibiotics hadn’t even been invented yet. Into his 90s, in an era of biological cancer treatments, magnetic resonance imaging scanners and gene editing, he was still receiving a couple of patients were week in his five-floor Jerusalem home/clinic

“I am 92 chronologically, but my mental age is around 42,” Sherer told me in an interview five years ago. He read five newspapers a day and numerous leading medical journals, attending as many medical conferences as he could. He told me in that first interview that he would write a book about his life, and – although nonagenarians cannot make such promises with certainty – his English-language autobiography Cases and Crises: A Physicians Saga – From Japan to Jerusalem; 73 Years of Healing (Mazo Publishers, available via Amazon) – in fact was published in 2017.

With his flat belly, mental and physical energy and phenomenal memory for dates and details going back eight decades, Sherer practiced what he preached about good health. The only medical conditions the nonagenarian said he suffered from were attention-deficit disorder) and cardiac vasoconstriction that he was diagnosed with at 31 and controlled with medications. “I don’t have anything else wrong with me. I feel healthier than an ox,” he said in 2013.

He gave up smoking – which for decades had been endorsed by physicians as being “good for concentration” out of ignorance or because they got paid off by tobacco companies.

“When [the late British physiologist Sir] Richard Doll published the association between smoking and lung cancer and heart disease, I realized cigarettes were bad for you. I had already given them up in 1948. The whole thing of risk factors and side effects weren’t part of medicine until that time.”

His mother was a housewife born in the Ukraine and his father a London-born furrier; they lived in the city’s East End, then almost totally Jewish “ghetto” neighborhood without even a fruit tree in sight.

“Only when I was seven did I realize that not everyone in the world was Jewish,” he related. “I wanted to be an actor, but my father dreamed of saying: ‘My son, the doctor.’ At 17, in the autumn of 1938, Cyril was dragged by his father to see one Dr. Clark- Kennedy, the dean of the London Hospital Medical School located in their neighborhood.

“The atmosphere was anything but friendly. He gave a cursory glance at my pathetic CV and looked at me down his long nose with ill-concealed distaste. He focused his eyes somewhere behind me as though I had brought a decaying carcass into the room. In an arctic tone of voice, he then said in an obviously pre-prepared way: ‘Sorry, Sherer. I already have my two Jews for this year.’” The young man was relieved.

But his father never gave up and turned for help to their family doctor, who had connections and had graduated from the Middlesex Hospital Medical School. Cyril was accepted in early 1939 and managed (by the skin of his teeth) to pass the entrance exam on the second time around. But as always, studying was tough for him. After the London Blitz, he moved to Leeds for clinical studies. He graduated in 1944 at the age of 23.

He started working as a resident physician at a hospital in Leicester. About to go to the movies, he saw an ad calling for doctors to serve for a year with the British occupation forces in Japan. As he didn’t like the weather and scenery in what he knew of England, he decided to join the Air Force, as “my mother always thought I looked better in blue.” As part of the British forces in Japan, he met Ruth, who became his wife in 1949; she was statistician in the military government in Japan.

The Sherers later moved to New Zealand where Cyril served in the local army and then worked as an assistant to a rural general practitioner, while Ruth worked as a secretary for the Israeli consul-general when he visited the country.

They had three children that Sherer had delivered himself: David, who became a chief of obstetrics at the State University in New York; Michael, a professor of psychiatry and consultant in hospital management near Washington, DC, and Judith Shalvi, a well-known educator and school administrator in Jerusalem. Ruth died at the age of 92 some seven years ago.

The teaching of medicine 70 years ago was a different world. There was no attempt to teach a methodology of learning. In the ‘30s and ‘40s, there were no exciting lectures, no PowerPoint presentations, no color illustrations, he recalled. Three-colored chalk was the most advanced technology. “No one taught why things happened; we just had to memorize the muscles, veins, arteries and bones and what they did. It was totally passive and very paternalistic. When I was a student, no thought was given to the methodology of teaching. One just wrote essays,” Sherer said.

The medical professor wore striped trousers, recalled Sherer, and “was one social class above us and told us what to think and to do. There were no women my medical school. The doctor used to advise a patient, say a tailor, to take a vacation in the south of France to feel better.”

“But,” he continued, “the study of medicine is an intellectual exercise, and practice is an art. If I ran medical schools, I would make sure everybody got six lectures from performing artists.”

Before 1945, medicine was observational, he said, adding that “evidence-based medicine began as a term only in 1990. In my time, you sat on a case and you knew the patient. You made an observation about him that you couldn’t explain, wrote it down and maybe would use it sometime.”

Sherer’s major life observation was that “people are more interesting than bacteria.” He recalls in the preface a famous medical cartoon in which solemn-looking surgeons in long white gowns gather around a bed. A frightened patient looks out from under the covers, while one of them – index finger raised as in judgment – says: “I say let’s operate. What have we got to lose?” 

This, noted Sherer, “was an attitude among doctors who, while they worked diligently to cure disease, paid little attention to the person himself, even less how he felt. The neglect was not volitional – it was how doctors were trained in most Western countries.”

The main medical advances between the middle of the 19th century and for nearly the next century, recalled Sherer, were the use of ether and anesthesia; understanding of the importance of washing hands with soap and water; pasteurization; the understanding of thyroid function; insulin; tetanus antitoxin; smallpox vaccinations; x-rays and the use of intravenous fluids, especially on the battlefield. Skin burns were treated by putting patients in a bathtub of saline; it hurt terribly, but it helped. Finally, penicillin was discovered. “It was so scarce in Britain that doctors recycled it by using the urine of a patient who had been given the antibiotic.”

After 13 years of a quiet existence as a New Zealand doctor, the couple realized that theirs was an “incredibly beautiful outdoors type of country, with lots of sheep, but it was very boring.” Cyril and Ruth decided to come on aliyah in 1961 with their children, then aged 11, 10 and six.

At first, the jobs he worked at were not satisfying, but instead of working for a health maintenance organization, Sherer found his place elsewhere. He was introduced to the US consul in Jerusalem. “They had no doctor, so I worked for them. As I speak French, five or six African embassies that were then based in Jerusalem wanted me to take care of their families and others. I built up a nice private practice.”

Then he was hired to be the physician of the famed King David Hotel, where, among others, he treated some of the richest people in the world. Then-mayor of Jerusalem Teddy Kollek used to recommend him.

“I didn’t charge the rich more than I did other people. It wouldn’t be honest. I didn’t want to hurt Israel’s reputation by taking advantage of foreigners. A sick person is vulnerable especially away from home, and a caring physician can make such a difference in their attitudes about Israel.”

The patients who still came to him in his 90s – many young enough to be his grandchildren – included foreign journalists stationed in Jerusalem. “They tell me I am able to reach a depth they weren’t familiar with before,” he said.

Now he is gone. His former patients will remember his fondly. One hopes that today’s physicians and medical school professors will learn from Dr. Cyril Sherer.

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