Russell M. Nelson was born on September 9, 1924, to Marion C. and Edna Anderson Nelson. All eight of his great-grandparents joined the Church in Europe, immigrated to Utah, and settled in the town of Ephraim. Their courage and commitment have inspired similar feelings in successive generations. As a boy, his interests varied. He performed errands for his father’s advertising company at the age of ten, and would later work part-time in a photo studio, a bank, and the post office. He had an excellent singing voice and performed often, and he participated on the debate team. He was also interested in football, but was usually kept on the bench. He jokes that perhaps he was too careful of his hands, since he was destined to become a heart surgeon.
Elder Nelson studied medicine in college, and by the time he’d graduated from the four year program in 1945, he was already a year into medical school. He earned his M.D. in 1947. He was twenty-two.
He was also married. Dantzel White had a beautiful singing voice. He heard her sing when they were both performing in the same play. Nelson was smitten, and married her three years later, in 1945. Dantzel finished her bachelor’s degree and taught school until their first child was born.
Elder Nelson interned at the University of Minnesota and rather promptly went on to make medical history. He worked on the team that developed the first machine which could perform the functions of a patient’s heart and lungs, while the patient was undergoing heart surgery. In 1951, it was used for the first time in surgery (the first open heart surgery in history), where it performed well. Four years later, he would perform the first successful open heart surgery (using the heart-lung machine) in Utah. Before returning to Salt Lake City, he enlisted to serve a two-year term of medical duty in the U.S. Army during the Korean War; he served in Korea and Japan and at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. Later he worked for a year at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, then returned to the University of Minnesota for a year and received his Ph.D. degree in 1954.
Elder Nelson would perform a number of firsts in Utah related to heart surgery. He was nationally known as an exceptional surgeon, and was elected president of the Society of Vascular Surgery.
But, when called as an Apostle in 1984, he took on his new responsibility with a good heart. His focus changed from medicine to the Gospel. As he joked shortly after his ordination: “I’m eagerly looking forward to this privilege of service. I’ve thought how nice it will be to have people come to see me who want to see me! All these years people have been coming to my office who really would rather not be there. I expect the majority of my appointments now will be of a joyous nature.”
Nelson has served with the skill and enthusiasm which marked his professional work, but his family life has never lost importance. Family, according to Nelson (and the Mormon Church) has always been highest priority. If Elder Nelson was often away, when he came home, he was truly, home. The family spent a lot of time together.
Elder Nelson has come to realize that the skills of a talented doctor are limited, but that the Lord’s power is limitless:
- He was in Manzanillo, Mexico, in February 1978, attending medical meetings with the group of doctors he had graduated with thirty years earlier. Suddenly, one of the doctors became seriously ill, suffering from massive bleeding into his stomach. Under normal circumstances, any of the physicians in the room could have treated him. Each had been trained in the science of healing; each had refined his skills and knowledge during years of experience. But as they watched their colleague suffer, they realized they were helpless.
- We were in a resort hotel in a remote fishing village,” recalls Elder Russell M. Nelson. “There was no hospital; the nearest was in Guadalajara, many mountainous miles away. It was night; no planes could fly. Transfusions were out of the question because of lack of equipment. All the combined knowledge and concern there could not be converted to action to help our friend as we saw his life ebbing before our eyes. We were powerless to stop his bleeding.”
- The victim asked for a blessing. Several of the doctors who held the Melchizedek Priesthood immediately responded, and Dr. Nelson acted as voice. “The Spirit dictated that the bleeding would stop and that the man would continue to live and return to his home and profession.” The man recovered and returned home.
- Men can do very little of themselves to heal sick or broken bodies,” Elder Nelson says. “With an education they can do a little more; with advanced medical degrees and training, a little more yet can be done. The real power to heal, however, is a gift from God. He has deigned that some of that power may be harnessed via the authority of his priesthood to benefit and bless mankind when all man can do for himself may not be sufficient.”
Dantzel and Russell Nelson had ten children, 56 grandchildren, and 14 great grandchildren. They were not untouched by tragedy. Their daughter, Emily, died a young mother of five. Dantzel died unexpectedly in early 2005. Nelson spoke of his thoughts about her death in the General Conference of April 2005.
In 2006, Elder Nelson married Wendy L. Watson, a professor of marriage and family therapy at BYU.