by Thomas H. Maugh, II
Leonard Shlain, the San Francisco surgeon who was a pioneer in the use of laparoscopic surgery and later wrote three best-selling books combining anthropology, science and art, died May 11 in San Francisco. He was 71 and had been battling brain cancer for two years.
Shlain was “a remarkably innovative surgeon . . . who led the way in pioneering new and innovative surgical therapies,” said Dr. Damian Augustyn, chief of staff at California Pacific Medical Center, where Shlain spent most of his career.
Shlain was among the first to apply laparoscopic techniques — in which surgery is performed through three tiny incisions in the stomach wall, using a tiny video camera and remotely operated instruments — to the removal of gallbladders and the repair of hernias.
He patented several instruments for use in the surgeries and flew around the world to teach his techniques to fellow surgeons.
But he is probably better known for his three books, which are routinely used in college courses: “Art & Physics,” “The Alphabet versus the Goddess” and “Sex, Time and Power.” His fourth book, “Leonardo’s Brain” about Leonardo Da Vinci, will be published next spring.
“Art & Physics” draws parallels between the development of realistic paintings and the scientific revolution of the last few centuries. “The Alphabet versus the Goddess” espoused his controversial theory that the development of writing led to the dominance of men over women. Singer Bjork credited this book as the inspiration for her recent album, “Wanderlust.”
The third book, “Sex, Time and Power” speculated that prehistoric women’s growing recognition of the dangers of child birth played a crucial role in the development of language. Shlain argued that women began to withhold sex because of the risk, but were unable to refrain completely because they had developed a culture in which sex was traded to men for meat, which replaced the iron they lost through menstruation. As women became more selective in choosing mates, men developed and refined language, Shlain argued, in their efforts to convince women to go to bed with them.
In a 1991 interview, Shlain said he began collecting these ideas to fill the gaps in his education. “I had early acceptance to medical school and quickly went into residency. I arrived at the middle of my life feeling I had holes in my experience.
“I also found it strange that I couldn’t explain why works of art were great, even when I knew they were.”
He started out by giving lectures to doctors, art gallery patrons and others, using their interest or lack of it as a guide to assembling his own ideas about overlaps between various cultural totems.
“What I am trying to do is show that we should integrate our knowledge more,” he said.
His books were frequently criticized by reviewers and experts in the fields he wrote about. In a 2008 interview, he suggested that he didn’t really care about the critics, noting that all the books were bestsellers.
Leonard Michael Shlain was born in Detroit on Aug. 28, 1937. He graduated from high school at 15 and attended the University of Michigan and Wayne State University Medical School, receiving his medical degree at age 23.
After serving as a captain in the U.S. Army in France, he hopped a military jet to San Francisco, where he interned at Mount Zion Hospital, drawn by the mingling of scientific research and cultural variety. He began his surgical residency at Bellevue Hospital in New York, then completed it at California Pacific Medical Center, where he remained for the rest of his career. He was also on the faculty at UC San Francisco.
In 1973, he volunteered as a trauma surgeon in Israel during the Yom Kippur War.
Shlain is survived by his second wife, Ina Gyemant, a retired San Francisco Superior Court judge; a son, Jordan Shlain of Ross, Calif.; two daughters, Tiffany Shlain of Mill Valley and Kimberly Brooks of Los Angeles; two stepchildren, Anne Gyemant Paris of Brussels and Roberto Gyemant Jr. of Mill Valley; a brother, Marvin Shlain, of Michigan; a sister, Sylvia Goldstick of Florida; and nine grandchildren