Stanford surgeon, inventor Thomas Nelsen dies at 90

Nelsen contributed to pioneering research in Hodgkin’s lymphoma that helped transform the fatal disease into a curable one.

- By Tracie White

Thomas Nelsen
Courtesy of the Nelsen family

Thomas Nelsen, a professor emeritus of surgery at the Stanford University School of Medicine whose research contributed to the university’s life-saving advances in the treatment of Hodgkin’s lymphoma, died March 17 in Idaho surrounded by family and friends. He was 90.

His dog, Martine, a constant companion, died just a few days before him in California while Nelsen was staying at a family vacation home in Sun Valley, said his daughter Karen Nelsen.

Nelsen, who came to Stanford in 1960 from the University of Chicago, became a member of Stanford’s world-renowned Hodgkin’s lymphoma program back when the concept of radiation treatment for cancer was in its infancy. He conducted diagnostic surgical procedures during clinical trials that helped radiotherapists pinpoint exactly where to target the experimental radiation treatments from a linear accelerator designed for medical use.

These new treatments were pioneered in 1962 by two Stanford faculty members — radiologist Henry Kaplan, MD, and oncologist Saul Rosenberg, MD — who conducted the clinical trials that eventually transformed the once-fatal disease into a curable one.

“He was a great surgeon from Chicago who was important in our Hodgkin’s studies,” said Rosenberg, professor emeritus of oncology.

“I’ve always considered him a pioneer,” said John Schroeder, MD, professor of cardiovascular medicine at Stanford, who became Nelsen’s friend and cardiologist. “I still see patients in my practice who at age 20 received radiation therapy at Stanford and now are in their 70s or 80s.”

Development of surgical lasers

After retiring from Stanford in 1988, Nelsen worked on the development of surgical lasers, in particular the holmium laser, and served as a board member and adviser on medical lasers at Coherent Inc. into the late 1990s, ­according to Karen Nelsen.

When his eyesight began to decline late in life due to macular degeneration, he took to driving a three-wheeled electrical bicycle to the hospital and the grocery store to maintain his independence, and rigged up a video system at home that allowed him to use his large-screen television as a reading device, she said.

“He was very bright and had a great sense of humor,” Schroeder said. “He continued to cross-country ski until last year, always challenging me to ski with him.”

Born in 1926, Nelsen grew up in Tacoma, Washington. His father was a surgeon who also kept racehorses. Nelsen graduated early from Stadium High School and enrolled at Harvard University in 1943. He married Shirley Polson, his childhood sweetheart, in 1945, immediately after the end of World War II. Together, the two transferred — Nelsen from Harvard and Polson from Vassar — first to UCLA and then to the University of Washington, where Nelsen graduated with a degree in zoology in 1947.

Military service and academia

He earned a medical degree from the University of Washington in 1951 and completed an internship and residency at the University of Chicago. His education was interrupted by military service in the early 1950s during the Korean War. In 1959, he became an assistant professor at Chicago.

Always active, he had many interests, including going to the opera, duck hunting and piloting airplanes. He traveled in Europe and Japan and also took an interest in photography.

After the death of his first wife in 1979, Nelsen married Roselyne Lombard, in 1981, a French nuclear physicist who participated in research at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center. After his retirement, the two divided their time between a home on the Stanford campus, the home in Sun Valley and a home in Paris.

Nelsen was a member of the Institute for Electrical and Electronics Engineers, as well as several surgical societies.

He is survived by his wife, Roselyne Lombard Nelsen; his daughters Karen Nelsen of Berkeley and Roxanne Nelsen of Los Altos; and his granddaughter.

For information about a memorial planned for late July contact Karen Nelsen at (510) 912-8681.

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