President Nelson receives honorary doctorate from the University of Utah

President Russell M. Nelson, world-renowned former heart surgeon, received an honorary doctoral degree from the University of Utah on Thursday, May 6. 

The 17th president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was one of three honorary doctoral degree recipients announced during the all-virtual general commencement ceremony. C. Hope Eccles, an education advocate, and William J. Rutter, known as the “father of biotechnology,” also received honorary degrees. 

A five-minute video interview with President Nelson, prepared for the virtual commencement, honored his legacy as a University of Utah student, research professor and director.

“No matter what your field of endeavor, it’s well to excel,” President Nelson said in the video. “So do your work well, do it as well as anyone else can, and then it all equalizes out. Some people like to do one thing, some people like to do another. Isn’t it a good thing we’re all different?”

Russell Marion Nelson was born on Sept. 9, in 1924, in Salt Lake City, Utah. After graduating from high school at age 16, he enrolled at the University of Utah and pursued his dream of becoming a doctor. 

He earned his bachelor’s degree in 1945 and his doctor of medicine degree two years later — a feat that required him to “double up on the course load and no summer vacations,” President Nelson said.

Dr. Russell M. Nelson explains a surgical procedure to a nurse.
Dr. Russell M. Nelson explains a surgical procedure to a nurse. Credit: Intellectual Reserve, Inc.

Prophet, physician, husband and father: A look at the life of President Nelson 

A man with perfect pitch, President Nelson was asked to participate in a school musical while he was a student. “I walked in Kingsbury Hall, and there’s a beautiful soprano singing,” he recalled. “She was stunning. She was gorgeous.”

That soprano, Dantzel White, would become his wife. They were married in 1945. 

After finishing medical school at the University of Utah, President Nelson went to the University of Minnesota for his residency. While there, he was a member of the team that developed the heart-lung machine. He went on to perform the first open-heart operation using the heart-lung machine in the state of Utah.

As director of Thoracic Surgery Residency at the University of Utah’s School of Medicine, President Nelson prepared more than 40 surgeons for that specialty. In 2018, a Presidential Endowed Chair in Cardiothoracic Surgery was created at the University of Utah in honor of Russell M. Nelson and Dantzel W. Nelson.

President Nelson and Sister Dantzel Nelson, who died in 2005, are the parents of 10 children. He married Sister Wendy Watson in 2006.

President Russell M. Nelson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and his wife, Sister Wendy Nelson, meet with youth in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, on Nov. 18, 2019.
President Russell M. Nelson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and his wife, Sister Wendy Nelson, meet with youth in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, on Nov. 18, 2019. Credit: Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Reflecting on his life, President Nelson said, “There is opposition to everything you do. One of the great tests in life is, how do you deal with adversity? 

“I’ve had the great sorrow of burying my wife and two of my precious daughters. Those have been challenges that have tested my ability to deal with hard things. You learn to deal with your challenges, make quick decisions, make good decisions, hopefully. I chose just to be in charge and try to do what’s right.”

President Nelson will receive his honorary degree citation and doctoral hood at a later date.