Dr. Nicholas Tilney hesitated the first time he saw surgery unfold, but only for a few moments. He was in high school and his older brother, a surgeon, had offered the chance to watch a cyst removal.
“Seeing the actual incision was too much,” Dr. Tilney wrote in “Invasions of the Body: Revolutions in Surgery,” his 2011 book that examines the evolution of the surgical arts. “Heeding my brother’s warning to ‘fall backward, away from the table’ if I felt faint, I quickly left the room. It didn’t take me long to regain my equilibrium and return. By the time he had closed the incision, I had become a convert.”
Following his brother into the surgical field, Dr. Tilney divided the next six decades between the operating room and the laboratory.
He was director of the transplant service at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and at the same time studied how to prevent bodies from rejecting transplanted organs.
“I have tried to combine two careers throughout my professional life,” he wrote in the 35th anniversary report of his Harvard class. “As a surgeon in charge of the kidney transplant program at the Brigham hospital, I care primarily for patients with chronic renal failure. As a transplantation biologist, I direct the surgical research laboratory at Harvard Medical School.”
Dr. Tilney, who also spent as many hours as possible on the water, often rowing a wooden single shell on the Charles River, died March 13 in his Boston home. He was 77 and had been treated for prostate cancer for many years.
“Dr. Tilney was the epitome of a gentleman,” Dr. Stefan G. Tullius, chief of the transplant surgery division at Brigham and Women’s, said in a tribute posted on the hospital’s website. “He was a charismatic surgeon-scientist and a tremendous mentor to many physicians and scientists who are now in prominent positions throughout the world.”
The Wall Street Journal named “Invasions of the Body” one of the top five health and medicine books of 2011. Reviewer William Bynum wrote that “Dr. Tilney’s analysis of surgical developments during his long career — he graduated from medical school in 1962 — is little short of brilliant.”
Because of his expertise, Dr. Tilney also was much in demand at conferences. That meant his professional commitments were so numerous that “one feels increasingly like Alice and the Red Queen, running faster and faster to stay in the same place,” he wrote in 1988. Work was never everything, however.
“Before Pop died, he wrote a list of things for which he wanted to be remembered,” his youngest daughter, Frances Tilney Burke of Fort Campbell, Ky., said in a remembrance at his memorial service in March. “He was very proud of his career in surgery and his many books, but most of the list was devoted to what he called fun.”
For Dr. Tilney, fun could be taking a more adventurous approach to exotic cuisine than his traveling companions, eagerly rubbing his hands together before dining on goat brains in Greece or on the chewy bill and webbed feet of a duck in China.
Mostly, though, fun meant going out on the waves in all kinds of boats and in all kinds of weather.
“Even if it was pouring rain and blowing 20 knots,” his daughter said, “he would tell us on a Saturday morning that there was a ‘patch of blue’ in the sky and that it was going to clear up — time to get on the boat!”
Nicholas Lechmere Tilney was born in New York City and grew up in Bedminster, N.J.
He graduated in 1954 from the Groton School and four years later from Harvard College, where he was captain of the varsity heavyweight crew team his senior year and skipped graduation to row a race against Yale University.
A few months later he married Henriette Loudon and they had three daughters. The couple divorced in 1976 after the “all encompassing nature” of work took a domestic toll, he later wrote.
Dr. Tilney received a medical degree from Cornell Medical College in New York in 1962. Further training took him to the Peter Bent Brigham Hospital and to Oxford, England.
In 1978, he married Mary Graves, a research associate at Harvard Medical School. They had a daughter and worked together in the research laboratory.
In his 40th Harvard class report, Dr. Tilney credited his wife with ensuring the lab ran smoothly by “taking care of the finances, keeping the investigations solvent and the research fellows calm. The whole thing has been great fun and I remain firmly in her debt for all her love and support.”
“He was truly a gentleman,” she said, “and I never remember seeing him angry.”
Dr. Tilney, who was the Francis D. Moore Professor of Surgery at Harvard Medical School, directed the Brigham and Women’s transplant service from 1976 to 1992 and led the medical school’s surgical research laboratory from 1975 to 2003.
His other books included “Transplant: From Myth to Reality” and “A Perfectly Striking Departure: Surgeons and Surgery at the Peter Bent Brigham Hospital, 1912-1980.” He retired in 2010.
During the Vietnam War, he served for two years as a Navy physician in Portsmouth, N.H., and bought an old Colonial in nearby New Castle, N.H., that became a treasured retreat.
“When I think about my father now, I like to imagine him sitting outside the house in New Castle looking out at the water,” his oldest daughter, Rebecca of Los Angeles, said in a remembrance at his service.
“He sits with his long legs crossed and has a book on his knees,” she said. “He loved the ocean, that house, and the beautiful garden he and Mary worked so hard on. It was his sanctuary. Although I imagine him sitting there, he is not idle for long. I don’t remember ever seeing my father not doing something.”
A service has been held for Dr. Tilney, who in addition to his wife and daughters Frances and Rebecca, leaves two other daughters, Louise Tilney Moore of Rochester, N.Y., and Victoria Tilney McDonough of Alexandria, Va.; two brothers, Lewis of Philadelphia and Philip of Kennebunkport, Maine; and nine grandchildren.
Despite Dr. Tilney’s many accomplishments, “he didn’t have a big ego that got in the way of being a happy person enjoying his life,” Frances said in an interview.
During his cancer treatments, if family members accompanied him and ran into his colleagues, “ten times out of 10 they would say what a pleasure it was to work with my father,” she said.
“He was sort of an old school gentleman, which was nice and which you don’t run into often anymore.”Bryan Marquard can be reached at bmarquard@