As a clinician, research scientist, scholar, and teacher at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary, Dr. Saumil Nalin Merchant had a reputation that reached around the world.
He worked in the field of otology, treating disorders and diseases of the ear, and was one of the American members of the Collegium Oto-Rhino-Laryngologicum Amicitiae Sacrum, the premier international society for otologic research.
Yet despite such renown, his neighbors in Acton knew he was available to treat any medical emergency.
“He was the kindest, most gentle man I ever met,” said his neighbor Susan Pinsky, who added that Dr. Merchant was always glad to examine a neighborhood child with an earache.
“He was so generous with his time, efforts, and knowledge,’’ she said. “My daughter burst into tears when she heard he had died.”
Dr. Merchant, the son of two physicians, was the Gudrun Larsen Eliasen and Nels Kristian Eliasen Professor of Otology and Laryngology.
He died of complications following a heart attack June 27 in the Kaplan Hospice House in Danvers. He was 51 and had lived in Acton.
“He was such a kind person and so caring,” said Herb Chambers of Boston, who owns automobile dealerships. “He would take whatever time was necessary for you and would come to my office in Somerville if I needed him. He was brilliant.”
Dr. Merchant’s other research passion was the study of the pathology of the human temporal bone.
In a tribute, Dr. Joseph B. Nadol Jr., chief of otolarygology at Mass. Eye and Ear, and Dr. Michael J. McKenna, a professor of otolaryngology and laryngology at Harvard Medical School, wrote that Dr. Merchant’s research was consistently supported by National Institutes of Health funding, “a clear testament to the high regard in which his research work was held.”
“His outstanding work earned him the Politzer prize for the best paper, awarded by the Politzer Society in 1999,” they wrote.
John Rosowski, a scientist and professor at Mass. Eye and Ear, was an instructor when he met Dr. Merchant in 1987.
“Shortly thereafter, Saumil began participating in some experiments with me and my students and asking questions about how the middle ear worked,” Rosowski said. “We progressed from mentor and mentee to co-workers.”
Rosowski added that “while it is fair to say that each of us played a significant supporting role in the other’s work and career development, in the end, I know that I am in debt to him for my position and scientific standing, whereas he would have achieved the same high standing without my assistance.”
Dr. Merchant’s “ability to communicate with both clinicians and scientists was one of the keys to his success as an otologist, surgeon, and scientist,” Rosowski said.
Nadol and McKenna wrote that Dr. Merchant “spent most of his time devoted to research and teaching.”
They added that over several years, Dr. Merchant and Rosowski “systematically established the scientific basis for much of the reconstructive surgery that is done in chronic ear disease and stapes surgery,” which is performed to correct a certain type of hearing loss.
In their e-mail, they also noted that through his research on the pathology of the human temporal bone, Dr. Merchant “did much to enhance the methodology by which human temporal bone pathology is studied.”
Dr. Merchant was born in what is now Mumbai, India, to Dr. Nalin Merchant and Dr. Rohinee (Gajkandh) Merchant. His father is an ear, nose, and throat specialist, his mother a gynecologist.
He graduated from Ramnarain Ruia College in Mumbai in 1977 and received a medical degree from the Seth G.S Medical College in Mumbai in 1982.
Dr. Merchant trained in otolaryngology at the College of Physicians and Surgeons in Mumbai and received a master’s degree in otolaryngology in 1985 at what was then called the University of Bombay.
After arriving in the United States, Dr. Merchant became a research fellow in otolaryngology at Mass. Eye and Ear in 1986 and 1987.
“We were fortunate to recruit him as a member of the full-time faculty in the department of otolaryngology at the infirmary in 1992,” Nadol and McKenna wrote. “He rose quickly on the academic ladder.”
As devoted as Dr. Merchant was to his work, he was even more so to his family, said Rosowski.
Rosowski recalled that Dr. Merchant “worked long and hard, arriving at work at 6:30 a.m. and often staying past 8 p.m.
“One of the few things that would get him home early,” Rosowski said, “were family-related affairs and any events his daughters participated in. He loved traveling abroad with his family.”
Dr. Merchant’s wife, the former Linda Gould, said he was “an incredibly kind and a very generous man with both his time and money, and loved by all.”
They met at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, where she was an audiologist and he was a resident on rotation. They married in 1990.
Dr. Merchant leaves his wife, parents, and two daughters, Alanna and Julie, all of Acton.
In his honor, Harvard Medical School lowered the flag on its quadrangle on July 27, the day before his memorial service.
“The collective hearts of Mass. Eye and Ear are aching,” said spokeswoman Mary Leach.
“So many people didn’t know what an impact he made on the scientific and medical community.”
Rosowski recalled that “in order to make long, experimental lessons interesting, Saumil would bet on the outcomes of experiments with the staff, where the bets usually revolved around who would go and get the chocolate cake.”