San Francisco Chronicle – Dr. Leonard Shlain – surgeon and author, counted Gore, Bjork as fans


Dr. Leonard Shlain, a Renaissance man whose final book is about the original Renaissance man, died Monday at his home in Mill Valley. He was 71.

Family members said the cause was brain cancer.

Surgeon, inventor, author, artist, student and teacher, Dr. Shlain defied easy categorization. He discouraged confined thinking, and studied, wrote and lectured about topics ranging from anthropology to linguistics to religion.

Along the way, he pioneered surgical techniques, designed houses and surgical tools and wrote books that won him fans as varied as former Vice President Al Gore and Icelandic singer Björk.

“I’m a synthesizer,” Dr. Shlain said in a 2008 interview with UC Berkeley’s Conversations With History project. “We need to synthesize more the relationships between artists and scientists, and men and women.”

Born in Detroit, Dr. Shlain graduated high school at 16 and medical school at 23. After two years as a captain in the U.S. Army in France, he hopped a military flight to San Francisco.

“I … had my mind blown by all the opportunities that were in California in the ’60s and ’70s,” he said. “In Detroit everything was Freud. … Out here everything was Jung.”

Dr. Shlain quickly added Eastern philosophies to his interests as he established his medical career, completing his residency at California Pacific Medical Center, before establishing a general surgery practice in 1969.

At 37, Dr. Shlain survived non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and was asked to speak in Berkeley about his dual perspectives as patient and physician. His speech led to invitations to write about his experience, but Dr. Shlain was uncertain.

“I don’t want to be a victim all the time,” he said. “I had this other idea for writing a book about art and physics. I was told, ‘Well, you know, you’re not an art historian and you’re not a physicist.’ ”

But Dr. Shlain maintained his wide intellectual interests as he stretched medically, becoming a pioneer in laparoscopic surgery, a technique for which he invented several tools and trained doctors around the world.

Dr. Shlain became head of laparoscopic surgery at California Pacific Medical Center and an associate clinical professor of medicine at UCSF.

Dr. Shlain married Carole Lewis in 1964; they divorced in 1980. He married his second wife, Judge Ina Gyemant, in 1997.

“Surgeons are not technicians, they’re not mechanics. They’re artists,” he said. “I see patterns where not many other people see patterns. … I think that’s what made me a good surgeon, and now, that’s what’s making me a good writer.”

Dr. Shlain’s books reflected that perspective: “Art & Physics,” published in 1993, posited that artists such as Pablo Picasso foreshadowed in their work the ideas of modern physicists such as Albert Einstein; 1999’s “The Alphabet Versus the Goddess” suggested a link between the rise of writing and the decline in the status of women, with a corresponding link between the modern rise in women’s status and visual media; and 2004’s “Sex, Time and Power,” an exploration of links between human biology and reproduction and the development of human concepts of time, language and culture.

The books were sometimes criticized by reviewers who questioned his background and conclusions. Dr. Shlain seemed to care little, noting with a smile during his 2008 interview that the books were all best-sellers. Fans seemed to care more about his insights than his resume.

“It doesn’t have to be right,” Björk told the Sydney Morning Herald in 2007 about her reading of “The Alphabet Versus the Goddess.” “It’s just an interesting speculation.”

Gore called Dr. Shlain a “personal inspiration” in an e-mail to The Chronicle.

“His ability to synthesize not only information but also genuine wisdom across multiple and disparate disciplines was extraordinary,” Gore wrote. “His death is a loss to us all.”

Dr. Shlain recently completed his fourth book, “Leonardo’s Brain,” an exploration of Leonardo da Vinci that he said would unite the themes in his earlier books. The book will be published next spring, according to his family.

Dr. Shlain is survived by his wife; siblings Marvin Shlain of Michigan and Sylvia Goldstick of Florida; children Kimberly Brooks of Los Angeles, Tiffany Shlain of Mill Valley and Dr. Jordan Shlain of Ross; stepchildren Anne Gyemant Paris of Brussels and Roberto Gyemant Jr. of Mill Valley; and nine grandchildren – with one more on the way. He is predeceased by his sister, Shirley Wollock.

Dr. Shlain’s life will be celebrated at 1 p.m. Friday at Sherith Israel Synagogue, 2266 California St., San Francisco. Memorial contributions may be made addressed to Ed Patuto, Leonard Shlain Scholarship Fund, Saybrook Graduate and Research Center, 747 Front St., San Francisco, CA 94111. For more information, call (415) 394-5675.

E-mail Matthew B. Stannard at

This article appeared on page B – 8 of the San Francisco Chronicle