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Dr. Martin A. Samuels, a neurologist with a gift for words and caring, dies at 77

Dr. Martin Samuels, chair of neurology at Brigham and Women's Hospital, in his office.The Boston Globe/Globe Freelance

Words and sentences and stories were as important to Dr. Martin A. Samuels as any expensive medical equipment when he examined neurology patients or taught students to pursue his specialty.

Whether comforting patients who faced devastating diagnoses or helping young physicians move past unsettling mistakes, Dr. Samuels used empathy and insight and wit to guide all he encountered, often drawing on the history of medicine and neurology to illuminate the matter at hand.

“He showed us the beauty there is in the simple act of helping to take care of one patient at a time,” said Dr. Sashank Prasad, vice chairman for education in the neurology department at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, his mentor’s professional home.

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“We received these timeless gifts that he and only he could give us,” Prasad said. “Patient by patient, we could see how he connected with them — all the lessons that could be learned about neurology and about life.”

Dr. Samuels, the founding chairman of the neurology department at Brigham and Women’s, died in his Back Bay home Tuesday after a brief illness. He was 77 and was the first to be named the Miriam Sydney Joseph professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School, a chair named in honor of his parents.

“He had this gift that when you met with him or saw him, you just felt better, even if he wasn’t your doctor,” said his wife, Susan Pioli, a medical editor. “It was a true gift. You can’t acquire that. You can’t learn that, I don’t think. He just had it.”

Along with being an astute clinician, Dr. Samuels “brought the teaching of neurology to all of the rest of medicine,” said Dr. Allan H. Ropper, deputy editor of the New England Journal of Medicine and a longtime friend.

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“He took a deep interest in these things that really seemed in orbit around medicine and neurology, and he studied them very deeply and then gave talks about them that were very, very engaging,” said Ropper, who had known Dr. Samuels for more than four decades and was a colleague for many years.

Dr. Samuels, his wife said, “was interested in the borderlands of neurology and other areas.”

Famously, he developed an expertise in the rare phenomenon of being scared to death — an interaction between the brain and heart in otherwise healthy people who become so frightened that their lives abruptly end.

His interest was piqued by an experience during his medical training.

“I saw a patient during my internship at Boston City Hospital in 1971 who heard some bad news and then collapsed,” he recalled in a 2015 Globe interview, adding that “at the time, the medical literature on the subject was very sparse, and no one knew how this could occur. I began to collect cases and went from there.”

In journal articles and lectures he referred to the phenomenon as “voodoo” death. That phrase echoed the title of an early 1940s paper on the subject by Dr. Walter B. Cannon, a Harvard Medical School professor whose work Dr. Samuels updated and expanded upon.

Along with examining the interaction between neurology and cardiology in the heart-stopping deaths of those severely frightened, Dr. Samuels studied the common ground in other areas, too.

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“Marty loved to show how medicine and neurology always remain inextricably interconnected,” Prasad said. “He was an internist before he became a neurologist. He taught us volumes about neurocardiology, neurohepatology, neuroimmunology, neurohematology, and more.”

Even among those many topics the voodoo death research achieved such recognition that “they call me the death doctor,” Dr. Samuels told the Globe with mild amusement in 2006, noting that his case histories ranged from children who died after scary rides in amusement parks to adults who collapsed when police raided their homes by mistake.

“Studying death is cheerful in a way,” he said, “because there are many things worse.”

Born on June 24, 1945, Martin A. Samuels grew up in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, the son of Miriam Joseph Samuels, a homemaker, and Sydney G. Samuels, a clothing salesman.

As a boy, Dr. Samuels admired his family’s empathetic pediatrician, who made house calls.

“It was a very romanticized version of what a doctor was supposed to be,” Dr. Samuels said in a 2009 interview with The Crimson, Harvard University’s student newspaper. “I asked him one day, ‘Can you continue to take care of me now that I’m not a child anymore?’ And he replied, ‘I’ll take care of you until you’re a doctor.’ "

Dr. Samuels graduated in 1967 from Williams College, which presented him with its Bicentennial Medal at the 2019 convocation for his distinguished achievements in neuroscience.

He also graduated from the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine, returning in 2012 to give the autumn commencement address at an institution which, in 2005, awarded him its Daniel Drake Medal for outstanding contributions to medical education.

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Generations of Harvard medical students, along with residents at Brigham and Women’s, fell “really under his spell,” said Dr. Joshua P. Klein, vice chairman for clinical affairs, neurology, at Brigham and Women’s, who met Dr. Samuels while interviewing for a residency.

Klein said Dr. Samuels “found a way to connect in every circumstance” — at a patient’s bedside or in an auditorium during a national conference. “It was really in those situations that Marty’s brilliance, his wit, his incisiveness were the most compelling and indeed the most memorable.”

Ropper said that “beyond his achievements, Marty was very special, and he always went the extra mile for his friends. He truly expressed the traditional virtues. It’s amazing because you can’t say that about many people. The guy was iconic.”

In addition to his wife, Dr. Samuels leaves two children from his first marriage, which ended in divorce: Marilyn Sommers of Lexington and Charles of Williamsburg, Va. He also leaves a sister, Carole Bilger of Houston, and three granddaughters.

The family will hold a private burial for Dr. Samuels, and a celebration of his life and work will be announced.

He and Pioli met in the mid-1980s “on the phone when I was working on one of his books,” she said.

“People used the word ‘unique’ a lot to describe him, and he really was,” she said. “Marty had the gift of not only helping his patients, but helping with their suffering. Even if he didn’t have a cure, he could help with their suffering and make them feel better.”

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In a 2016 essay, Dr. Samuels offered a nine-point approach to keeping physician burnout at bay.

His advice ranged from empathizing with patients, without demanding their empathy in return, to cultivating “a sense of humor and an appreciation of irony,” to becoming a mentor, to acknowledging and learning from mistakes.

“Rather than fearing error and thinking that one needs to be a ‘superman’ I encourage all doctors to collect and analyze continuously their own errors,” he wrote for The Health Care Blog. “Furthermore, you should share them with your close colleagues.”

In articles and anecdotes, Dr. Samuels taught nearly nonstop.

“These stories Marty shared with us are timeless gifts,” Prasad said. “Marty’s neurology is not one that can be easily read in a textbook or on a website.”

No matter the case, he added, Dr. Samuels “could find stories and lessons to add to the anthology of all that we learned from him.”


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