The good old doctor – 92 years young

Seventy years after graduating from medical school in London, Dr. Cyril Sherer is still practicing medicine.

Dr. Cyril Sherer (photo credit: Judy Siegel-Itzkovich)
Dr. Cyril Sherer
(photo credit: Judy Siegel-Itzkovich)
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 Israel.
“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 autobiography.
“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.
“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.”
HE 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 common.”
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 martial law.”
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.
“I 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.”
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 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 says.
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 essays.”
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,” 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 sometime.”
Between the middle of the 19th century and for nearly the next century or so, there weren’t many important new developments.
The main 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 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 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.”
Their aliya 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 shudder.
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.
But I 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.”
But 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.
“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 Sherers 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 limit.”
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 problem.
But this takes time, and today, many doctors just don’t have the time.
“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.
They tell me I am able to reach a depth they weren’t familiar with before,” he says.
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.”