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Leonard Shlain, pioneering surgeon and author; at 71

LEONARD SHLAIN LEONARD SHLAIN
By Thomas H. Maugh II
Los Angeles Times / May 20, 2009
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LOS ANGELES - Dr. Leonard Shlain, a San Francisco surgeon who was a pioneer in the use of laparoscopic surgery and later wrote three best-selling books combining anthropology, science, and art, died May 11 in San Francisco. He was 71 and had been battling brain cancer for two years.

Dr. Shlain was "a remarkably innovative surgeon. . . who led the way in pioneering new and innovative surgical therapies," said Dr. Damian Augustyn, chief of staff at California Pacific Medical Center, where Dr. Shlain spent most of his career.

Dr. Shlain was among the first to apply laparoscopic techniques - in which surgery is performed through three tiny incisions in the stomach wall, using a tiny video camera and remotely operated instruments - to the removal of gallbladders and the repair of hernias.

He patented several instruments for use in the surgeries and flew around the world to teach his techniques to fellow surgeons.

But he is probably better known for his three books, which are routinely used in college courses: "Art & Physics," "Alphabet vs. The Goddess" and "Sex, Time and Power." His fourth book, "Leonardo's Brain" about Leonardo Da Vinci, will be published next spring.

"Art & Physics" draws parallels between the development of realistic paintings and the scientific revolution of the past few centuries. "Alphabet vs. The Goddess" espoused his controversial theory that the development of writing led to the dominance of men over women. Pop singer Björk credited this book as the inspiration for her song "Wanderlust."

The third book, "Sex, Time and Power," speculated that prehistoric women's growing recognition of the dangers of childbirth played a crucial role in the development of language. Dr. Shlain posited that women began to withhold sex because of the risk, but that they developed a culture in which sex was traded to men for meat, which replaced the iron they lost through menstruation.

Men developed and refined language, he said, in their efforts to persuade women to go to bed with them.

In a 1991 interview, Dr. Shlain said he began collecting his ideas to fill in gaps in his education. "I had early acceptance to medical school and quickly went into residency. I arrived at the middle of my life feeling I had holes in my experience.

"I also found it strange that I couldn't explain why works of art were great, even when I knew they were."

He started out by giving lectures to doctors, art gallery patrons, and others, using their interest, or lack of it, as a guide to assembling his own ideas about overlaps between various cultural totems. "What I am trying to do is show that we should integrate our knowledge more," he said.

His books were frequently criticized by reviewers and specialists in the fields he wrote about. In a 2008 interview, he suggested that he did not really care, adding that all the books were best-sellers.

Dr. Shlain leaves his second wife, Ina Gyemant, a retired San Francisco Superior Court judge; a son, Jordan of Ross, Calif.; two daughters, Tiffany of Mill Valley, Calif., and Kimberly Brooks of Los Angeles; two stepchildren, Anne Gyemant Paris of Brussels and Roberto Gyemant Jr. of Mill Valley; a brother, Marvin, of Michigan; a sister, Sylvia Goldstick of Florida; and nine grandchildren.