Health fund and hospital physicians can work up to the age of 67 or a maximum of
70 in certain cases. Yet Dr. Cyril Sherer, a London-born general
practitioner who started medical school in 1939 and always worked privately, is
92 years old, and he still receives a couple of patients per week in his
Jerusalem home. He is likely the most veteran practising physician in
“I am 92 chronologically, but my mental age is around 42,” says
Sherer in an interview in his beautiful fifth-floor apartment opposite the Inbal
Hotel, which includes a small clinic with a scale, small medical devices and
signed photographs of Mikhail Gorbachev, the Dalai Lama, Isaac Stern, Jimmy and
Rosalynn Carter and others.
He has been practising since the
preantibiotics era, but regularly updates himself, reading five newspapers a day
and numerous leading medical journals, and attending as many medical conferences
as he can. He also writes beautifully and is working on an
“Experience is knowing what to discard and what to retain
when weighing the equation,” he explains.
With his flat belly, mental and
physical energy and phenomenal memory for dates and details going back eight
decades, Sherer obviously has practised what he preached about good health. The
only medical conditions the nonagenarian suffers from are attention-deficit
disorder (ADD) and cardiac vasoconstriction that he was diagnosed with at 31 and
is controlled with medications. “I don’t have anything else wrong with me. I
feel healthier than an ox, ” he says.
He gave up smoking – which for
decades had been endorsed by physicians as being “good for concentration” out of
ignorance or because they they got paid off by tobacco companies.
[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.”
HAD never wanted to become a physician.
“My mother was a housewife born
in the Ukraine and my father a London-born furrier. He and I did didn’t have
much of a relationship. We lived in the same house in the East End, and apart
from meals, our paths crossed only from time to time. We had little in
The almost totally Jewish neighborhood where Cyril and his
sister grew up was a ghetto.
“There wasn’t even a fruit tree in sight; I
didn’t see one until I was 22. Only when I was seven did I realize that not
everyone in the world was Jewish,” he relates. “I had no role models. I was
talented, a good mimic with a good voice, reasonably good looking and able to
talk to people. I wanted to be an actor, but my father dreamed of saying: ‘My
son, the doctor.’ He was very domineering; living with him was like being under
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.
couldn’t sit still. They called it ‘St.
Vitus’s dance.’ I realize now, 70
years later, that I had ADD. I had difficulty processing words. Textbooks were
heavy, clumsy, with dense text and no colored illustrations. By the time I got
to the end of the line, I forgot what I had read at the beginning, so I never
passed exams the first time they were held, only the second.”
London Blitz, he moved to Leeds for clinical studies. He graduated in 1944 at
the age of 23.
He started working as a resident 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.
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; David, a professor of psychiatry
and consultant in hospital management near Washington, DC, and Judith Shalvi,
daughter-in-law of Alice and the late Moshe Shalvi. Judith is well known in
Jerusalem as an administrator and will soon come to live in his former five-room
medical clinic up a few stairs. Cyril has five grandchildren, one
great-grandchild and another one on the way.
“All my children are very
clever. I have a loving family, a beautiful home, no money worries and I still
work, practising medicine in a country with a very high level of medicine,” he
After a long and happy life together, Ruth died about a year ago in
Jerusalem, where she served as a secretary to the late Rabbi David Hartman for
25 years. As a widower, he has a live-in housekeeper from Moldavia who cooks
excellent meals and takes care of the apartment.
THE TEACHING of medicine
70 years ago was a different world, he continues. “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. 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
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.”
says Sherer, “the study of medicine is an intellectual exercise, and practise 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
says, 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
Between the middle of the 19th century and for nearly the next
century or so, there weren’t many important new developments.
ones, recalls 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
Skin burns were treated by putting patients in a bathtub of
saline; it hurt terribly, but it helped. Finally, penicillin was
“It was so scarce in Britain that doctors recycled it by
using the urine of a patient who had been given the antibiotic.”
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 aliya in 1961
with their children, then aged 11, 10 and six.
“I had been in the Habonim
Zionist movement in London at the age of nine.
Ruth and I had talked of
doing so for years.
So it was natural that we were bitten by the aliya
bug. We went to ulpan to learn Hebrew. The Jewish Agency’s functioning was
terrible. Ruth had been here before, but I never had been.”
did not start well. “We lived in an old Netanya house, cooking on a primus
stove, with an ice box to cool food and no electric refrigerator. There were
rats and scorpions. I was deeply depressed,” Sherer recalled with a
He was offered a job by the social medicine department of
Hadassah Hospital treating new immigrants from north Africa and Romania in the
Kiryat Hayovel quarter clinic.
“It was terrible. I couldn’t understand my
patients at all. I got a miserable salary that we couldn’t begin to live on. I
left the job after a few months,” he says.
He decided to leave for
Melbourne and find a job as a doctor, leaving behind his wife and children until
he got settled.
“The Australians treated me like a prince.
missed my family and Israel intensely, so when Kupat Holim Clalit offered me a
part-time job in Jerusalem, I came back three months after I left.”
instead of working for the health fund, 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 Teddy Kollek used to recommend him.
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.”
lived in Jerusalem’s Talbieh quarter from 1961 – where Jordanian soldiers took
pot shots at them. In the fiveroom apartment up the stairs, he had his own lab
and even a radiologist from Hadassah working for him.
“I have treated
many tens of thousands of patients over the years. Years ago, some colleagues
and I started a ‘Journal Club’ for which we get together – in my home – and
discuss articles we have read in medical journals. It still meets here. Our rule
is that no food is served and that no magazines that are not medical journals
are quoted,” Sherer says with a smile. “I am wildly interested in the subject of
neuropharmacology as a hobby. By the way, about 10 years ago, I gave up my
membership in the Israel Medical Association because I felt that it works mostly
as a union and deals with salaries, conditions and strikes. It’s not for me. But
my Health Ministry license as a physician is still up to date; there is no age
All disease, the good doctor continued, “is change in structure
or function or both. If you start with normal physiology and then learn what
affects it, you can get close to an accurate identification of a medical
But this takes time, and today, many doctors just don’t have the
“No matter what the lab says, it’s the patient’s story that counts,
and the way he tells it is even more revealing – if you know how to read the
signals. It’s somewhere between ad lib theater and a sonata, where the theme
goes back and forth between two players; point and counterpoint, theme and
development and signals hidden in the score.”
The patients who still come
to him – many young enough to be his grandchildren – include foreign journalists
stationed in Jerusalem.
“I don’t charge big fees as a private medical
consultant – just NIS 400 or NIS 500 for an hour. People don’t think twice about
buying a shirt for NIS 400, but some think it’s odd to pay it to a private
doctor instead of a health fund physician who gives you a few minutes of his
time. Yet they hear about me and appreciate my experience and dedication. I send
them for tests to private labs and make prescriptions and referrals.
tell me I am able to reach a depth they weren’t familiar with before,” he
As for his lifestyle, which probably is a major factor in his long
life, he goes for underwater aerobics at the Inbal pool across the street four
or five times a week.
“My housekeeper, Ina, is a gourmet cook. I
eat a lot of fresh green and yellow vegetables, lots of dairy products. I
wouldn’t touch cola or other junk food. Instead, I drink cold green tea with
honey. My mind is still very active. The greatest thing that has happened to me
in the last few decades is Google searches. I have a very inquiring mind.”