Physician, researcher, professor, healthcare executive, jam maker, gardener, architecture aficionado, world traveler, runner, beloved husband, father, and grandfather Sam Nussbaum passed away on Sept. 23, 2021, at his home in Oak Bluffs. The cause was pancreatic cancer.
Nussbaum began coming to Martha’s Vineyard in 1977, as part of the program in which Martha’s Vineyard Hospital brought in physicians from Massachusetts General and other hospitals to help meet the influx of summer residents and their injuries. His experiences at Martha’s Vineyard Hospital led him to implore all he knew to never get on a moped.
Initially, the hospital put Nussbaum and his family up in a home near Sengekontacket Pond. Dr. Nussbaum and his family quickly fell in love with the Island. He taught his children to swim in Fresh Pond, and to dig for quahogs in Sengekontacket, where he would wade out into the water, carrying a clam rake (and of course his clam permit), towing his children in an inflatable raft, and exclaiming, “This one’s fighting!” every time he hit a clam. He loved going on annual bike rides to Aquinnah, walking the beach at Long Point, golfing at Farm Neck, frequenting the Island’s art galleries, and making batches of raspberry jam with berries picked at Thimble Farm. When Thimble Farm ceased operations, he turned to fruit from his own bushes, and trees on the Island. He ran the Chilmark Road Race from its earliest years, and wore Black Dog T shirts long before it was cool.
He loved traveling with his wife of 52 years, Rhoda. Together, they biked in the Loire Valley, hiked through the rainforests of Costa Rica, and prepandemic, sailed the Galapagos Islands.
Dr. Nussbaum led a long and varied career that began with two decades at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital. There, he led the clinical endocrine group practice, a place that became a training ground for many leaders in American medicine.
Nussbaum’s time at the endocrine group coincided with the birth of molecular endocrinology, and his work helped unlock many of the secrets of how parathyroid hormone operates, binds to receptors, and helps control calcium levels and bone health. His research paved the way for the creation of synthetic parathyroid hormone, and other drugs and treatments for osteoporosis.
At Mass General, his attentive, generous, and soft-spoken bedside manner earned him the gratitude and loyalty of patients, who would occasionally render payment in the form of live lobsters and Red Sox tickets.
His leadership of the endocrine group led him to healthcare management, where he became chairman of the board of the troubled HMO Bay State Health Care, and orchestrated its merger with Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts, where he became chief medical officer.
In subsequent years, he served as executive vice president, medical affairs and system integration of BJC Health Care in St. Louis, Mo., and executive vice president, clinical health policy, and chief medical officer for Anthem. While at Anthem, Dr. Nussbaum received the 2004 Physician Executive Award of Excellence from the American College of Physician Executives and Modern Physician magazine, and was recognized by Modern Healthcare as one of the “50 Most Influential Physician Executives in Healthcare.”
He brought to those roles a tireless commitment to patient advocacy and population health. He worked to ensure that the insurance industry embraced, and covered, new therapies. He immersed himself in patient outcome data to advocate for greater precision in treating individuals and populations. In fact, it was his focus on population health that enabled him to sound an early warning about the heart risks posed by widely administered COX-2 inhibitors.
Upon retiring from Anthem, he served as an advisor to the healthcare law firm Epstein Becker Green, and was a senior advisor to the Ontario Teachers Pension Plan and Sandbox Industries. He was advising startups, biotech firms, publicly traded companies, and pension funds until the weeks leading up to his death. Of particular interest to him were companies developing tests that would allow for the early detection of major diseases.
Nussbaum grew up in Kingston, N.Y., the middle of three children. He spent summers working at his family’s hotel in the Catskills, the Bonnie View. After finishing Kingston High School in three years, Nussbaum matriculated to the Scholars Program at New York University, where he met his wife, Rhoda. Nussbaum received his M.D. from Mount Sinai School of Medicine, graduating first in his class. He trained in internal medicine at Stanford University and Massachusetts General Hospital, and in endocrinology at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital.
He is survived by his wife of 52 years, Rhoda Kahn Nussbaum; his son Jeffrey; his daughters Cara (Scott Fudemberg) and Barrie (Dan Levine); six grandchildren; two nieces, Lisa and Jessica; and five grandnieces and -nephews. He is also survived by his sister Ila (John Falvey); brother Bruce Nussbaum; two surprisingly devoted cats; and several dozen jars of his homegrown raspberry jam.
A funeral service will be held at the Martha’s Vineyard Hebrew Center on Wednesday, Sept. 29, at 12 noon, with burial following in the Martha’s Vineyard Hebrew Cemetery. One of his favorite sayings was that life was lived in three phases: learning, earning, and, through mentorship, teaching, and charity, returning. In lieu of flowers, gifts in Dr. Nussbaum’s memory can be directed toward the Nussbaum Family fund at Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary, the MV Hebrew Center Summer Institute, or to a charity of your choice.
Please visit chapmanfuneral.com for online tributes and information.