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Dr. Robert Osteen, surgeon and poet who inspired students, dies at 81

Dr. Osteen, with his wife, Carolyn McCue Osteen, at the Washington Park Arboretum in Seattle in 2021.

In order to go fast, go slow, Dr. Robert T. Osteen would tell young surgeons he trained at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

“If you make no missteps, if you take your time, you’re never backtracking,” Dr. Atul Gawande said, recalling one of the lessons his mentor offered, which reached beyond which surgical tool to choose, where to stand, where to make an incision.

A poet and a sailor who navigated the page and the waves as deftly as he did the operating room, Dr. Osteen, who lived on Beacon Hill, was 81 when he died July 14 in Brigham and Women’s, the hospital that was his professional home for about 50 years.

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In his last days his immune system failed while he was being treated for complications from a bicycling accident and other health matters.

Gawande, a writer and surgeon who leads global health efforts at the US Agency for International Development, wrote about Dr. Osteen’s expertise in a 2011 New Yorker magazine essay. Having reached a plateau as a surgeon, but still hoping to improve, Gawande sought out an operating room coach, and asked Dr. Osteen to fill the role.

All surgeons, he recalled, hoped to match the example Dr. Osteen set.

“His operations were swift without seeming hurried and elegant without seeming showy,” Gawande wrote. “He was calm. I never once saw him lose his temper. He had a plan for every circumstance. He had impeccable judgment. And his patients had unusually few complications.”

A surgical oncologist and researcher, Dr. Osteen was honest and compassionate about which patients could profit from operations, and which faced a different outcome.

While writing “Now, I Look Away,” a poem that resonated among physicians, he drew from experiences with patients whose lives he couldn’t save.

He and I have sealed

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A wordless bargain —

“Success” is

A softer way to die.

From his eyes,

I look away.

Dr. Osteen “was very clear about what you could and couldn’t accomplish,” said Gawande, who called his mentor “one of the sources of great wisdom” among the physicians he spoke with while writing “Being Mortal,” his 2014 bestseller.

“Bob Osteen had a huge presence at the Brigham and beyond,” said Dr. David Brooks, a former director of minimally invasive surgery at the hospital, as part of the institution’s tribute.

Though retired, Dr. Osteen “was at our Wednesday morning Morbidity and Mortality conference nearly every week, adding sage advice, challenging the residents and staff, and generally providing wonderful gravitas to the meetings,” Brooks said. “His surgical wisdom was always valued.”

That wisdom was something students sought, Gawande said: “It was how he thought that you were most hungry for.”

On Friday evenings, Gawande said, Dr. Osteen held what was known as a pizza conference for students, who discussed surgical cases over slices, “and it was nothing but questions from him: ‘Where did you make the incision? Why did you decide to make the incision there?’ "

Sometimes Dr. Osteen challenged students to consider whether they should have performed a particular operation in the first place. Amid his questions were pearls of wisdom.

“Another thing he said was, ‘If you do the easy stuff first, you may not have to do any hard stuff at all,’ " Gawande said. “Every reason for doing something was carefully thought through.”

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The older of two siblings, Robert Tilden Osteen was born in Augusta, Ga., on Feb. 14, 1941, and grew up in Savannah.

His father, Dr. Wentworth Osteen, was an anesthesiologist. His mother, Elaine Goodson Osteen, was a teacher during World War II.

Robert “was always determined to be a surgeon from an early age,” said his wife, Carolyn McCue Osteen, an attorney and retired partner at Ropes & Gray.

Deciding early on that he wanted to attend college in New England, Dr. Osteen went to Dartmouth College, without first having visited the campus.

“He got on a train in Savannah in a seersucker suit,” Carolyn said, and soon found himself in Hanover, N.H., which was distant from his Southern upbringing in miles, weather, and culture.

Majoring in philosophy, Dr. Osteen was captain of the sailing team and volunteered at the college’s Hood Museum of Art. “It was life-changing for him,” she said.

They met while he was at Dartmouth and she was a Wellesley College student, and married in 1963.

After graduating from Dartmouth, he received a medical degree from Duke University School of Medicine, and then served in the Air Force, focusing on transplant surgery research.

Dr. Osteen completed his residency at what was then Peter Bent Brigham Hospital in Boston, “which was clearly a place he was destined to go,” Carolyn said. “He loved everything about the Brigham surgery program.”

He spent his entire career at the hospital, which noted in its tribute that “in recognition of his lasting influence on surgical education, the Department of Surgery established a Junior Faculty Fellowship Award in his honor in 2006.”

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Dr. Osteen was “creatively curious,” said his daughter Morey Ward of Bethesda, Md., which was evident in his activities away from work. Indulging his love of music and theater, he performed at the Tavern Club in Boston, and sang lieder by the composer Robert Schumann for family and friends.

“He loved performing and singing on stage,” Ward said, and he also was a cross-country skier and runner who had competed in the Boston Marathon.

In retirement, Dr. Osteen “really gave himself the opportunity to write books and to be a part of the theater group,” said his other daughter, Sarah, of Seattle, who went on annual hikes with her father, including a week one summer on the Appalachian Trail. “I was always really impressed that he was able to recognize that there was more to life than his career, even though that was such a big part of who he was.”

Dr. Osteen wrote a 2014 book about the exploits of William Henry Smyth, an 1800s Royal Navy officer and astronomer who charted the Mediterranean.

Last year, he completed “Surgery Under Fire,” an account of his father’s World War II experiences as an anesthesiologist, based on some 300 letters home.

Dr. Osteen also collected his poetry in “Zero to Five Knots and a Book.”

In “Now, I Look Away,” he wrote about surgical patients arriving at the hospital like guests at an evening gathering: “Must I host another dinner,” he muses:

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They come

To feast on medicine’s bounty,

The latest miracle cooked up

By their chef and host

A service will be announced for Dr. Osteen, who in addition to his wife and two daughters leaves four grandchildren.

In his New Yorker essay, Gawande wrote that Dr. Osteen’s “voice was a low, car-engine growl, tinged with the accent of his boyhood in Savannah, Georgia, and it took me a couple of years to realize that it was not his voice that scared me but his questions. He was invariably trying to get residents to think — to think like surgeons — and his questions exposed how much we had to learn.”

Students, he added in the interview, aspired to think more like Dr. Osteen.

“He was someone we all were in awe of,” Gawande said. “He was a surgeon I most wanted to emulate for his judgment and his skill.”


Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.