Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Nonagenarian Surgeon Raps Booze

ST. PETERSBURG -- Impressive as it may be that Fyodor Uglov is still a practicing surgeon at the age of 92, this still may not be his most remarkable achievement. There is another, even more unlikely, accomplishment claimed by the elderly doctor -- an accomplishment that begs credulity and occasions much head-shaking and disbelief.

In 92 years of living in Russia, Uglov has never had a drink -- not even a sip! -- of alcohol.

"I would just trick my friends at celebrations by putting the glass to my lips but not drinking anything," says the doctor, a slightly stooped man with watery eyes and a low, rasping chortle. "After a few toasts, everybody else is too drunk to notice that I'm the only one not drinking."

Uglov, who said he was at one point recognized by the "Guinness Book of World Records" as the world's oldest active surgeon, is perhaps better known in Russia as a longtime campaigner against alcohol abuse. Three of the doctor's seven published books address the issue, and he was one of the driving forces behind Mikhail Gorbachev's unpopular anti-alcohol campaign of the mid-1980s.

The doctor's first efforts to draw government attention to the problem came in the early 1980s when he wrote a letter to then-Soviet leader Yury Andropov. Using a metaphor that he hoped would jolt the leadership into acknowledging the severity of the problem, he wrote that the effects of alcoholism on the Russian people were comparable to "the explosion of 12 atomic bombs of the type dropped on Hiroshima."

"By that, I meant that the annual number of deaths related to alcohol abuse in Russia was comparable to the number of people who would have died in 12 Hiroshimas," says Uglov. The result: A government commission was convened, out of which eventually came the anti-alcohol decree of the Gorbachev years.

Uglov's jarring, combative language on alcohol -- he uses terms such as "alcohol mafia" and liberally quotes alarming statistics on brain decay, blood poisoning and birth defects -- stands in stark contrast with his folksy demeanor and love of a time-tested, earnest platitude.

"My mama always said to me," he is apt to say, leaning forward with a remarkably steady finger pointing skyward, "'Fedya! You should always do good for people. But don't wait around for them to thank you for it. You should do good just for its own sake.'"

Although Uglov does still occasionally perform surgery, the bulk of his time is taken up with his anti-alcohol campaign, advising his team of fellow doctors and interns at the Pavlov First Medical Institute and giving interviews.

"I only operate now when the patient requests it, or when one of the other doctors needs help," says Uglov. "But of course I still operate; my hands are still steady."

This is an observation that, like so many observations, leads the doctor into a story. "The first time I ever operated," he says, "the head surgeon just cursed at me when it was all over, saying, 'Look at these hands! You are not a surgeon! You shouldn't even be a janitor with these hands!'

"So I went home with my instruments and practiced for three months. I sewed sutures in gloves, in socks, in anything I could get my hands on, until I got used to using the instruments. Then, the next time I went into surgery, it was really like the 502nd time instead of the second time." The head surgeon was thus placated, and Uglov's record-setting surgical career was under way.

Although Uglov has been eligible for retirement since back in the Khrushchev years, he has no plans to shorten his working hours. Last week, he completed another article for publication in a medical journal -- he has published more than 600 so far -- and he is frequently sought out by the institute's other surgeons for advice.

As he proudly notes, "I haven't even started taking naps during the daytime yet."