Childhood & Early Life
Born on September 9, 1924, in Salt Lake City, Utah, Russell Nelson was one of the four children of Marion Clavar Nelson (1897–1990) and Floss Edna Nelson (née Anderson; 1893–1983). He had three siblings, one brother, Robert Harold (1931–2014), and two sisters, Marjory Edna (1920–2016) and Enid (b. 1926).
Nelson’s father was a journalist who worked for the Deseret News. He later became the manager of Gillham Advertising Agency. Neither of his parents was an active Mormon when Nelson was young. However, they made sure that he attended Sunday School regularly. When he was 16 years old, he was baptised and became a member of the LDS Church.
Nelson attended LDS Business College, concurrently with high school enrolment. He also landed a job as an assistant secretary at a bank. At the age of 16, he graduated from high school and subsequently started attending the University of Utah.
He earned his B.A. degree in 1945 and M.D. degree in 1947. He enrolled at the medical school while still working on his bachelor’s degree and finished the four-year M.D. program a year early.
After becoming an M.D., Nelson enrolled at the University of Minnesota for surgical training and doctoral studies. In 1951, he earned his Ph.D. He then joined the group of researchers who created the heart-lung machine that was utilized during the first-ever human open-heart surgery using cardiopulmonary bypass in March 1951.
At the advent of the Korean War, Nelson enlisted in the US Army and served two years as a medical officer at army bases in Korea, Japan, and Washington, D.C. After leaving the army, he was attached to Harvard Medical School's Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston as a surgical trainee and employee for a year.
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Career as a Surgeon
In 1955, Russell Nelson joined the University of Utah School of Medicine as a faculty member. Soon, he developed his own heart-lung bypass machine and used it to perform the first open-heart surgery in the state of Utah at the Salt Lake General Hospital (SLGH). The patient was an adult with an atrial septal defect. For a considerable period, he served as the director of the University of Utah thoracic surgery residency program.
This set off an illustrious career with countless achievements. He conducted the first successful paediatric cardiac operation at the SLGH, a complete mending of “Tetralogy of Fallot” in a four-year-old girl, in March 1956.
Nelson was one of the leading surgeons who worked with patients suffering from coronary artery disease. He was also significantly involved in the advancement of valvular surgery. He conducted one of the first repairs of tricuspid valve regurgitation on a Latter-day Saint stake patriarch in 1960 and later, on the future LDS Church president Spencer W. Kimball.
In 1965, Nelson declined to join the University of Chicago as the head of their department of thoracic surgery. Instead, he started taking part in the administrative side of medicine and was subsequently picked as the president of the Utah State Medical Association. He also served as the Chairperson of the Division of Thoracic Surgery at LDS Hospital.
Nelson received the national honour of being the president of the Society for Vascular Surgery for 1975. Furthermore, he was chosen as the director of the American Board of Thoracic Surgery. Nelson visited various countries in South America and Africa as well as China and India as a medical doctor and to speak in conferences.
In 1985, Nelson, along with his colleague Conrad B. Jenson, operated on Chinese opera performer Fang Rongxiang.
In 2015, the University of Utah, in collaboration with the American College of Cardiology, honoured him by setting up the Russell M. Nelson M.D., PhD Visiting Professorship in Cardiothoracic Surgery.
As a devout member of the LDS Church, Russell M. Nelson has been actively involved in the matters pertaining to the church while simultaneously maintaining a busy career in medicine. After his first marriage in 1945, he served the church as a counsellor in bishoprics and as a member of a stake high council.
In 1964, he was appointed as a stake president in Salt Lake City and would perform the duties the position required until 1971. He spent eight years as the church's Sunday School General President as well as four years as a regional representative.
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On April 12, 1984, he was made an apostle by Gordon B. Hinckley. Following the deaths of the Quorum members LeGrand Richards and Mark E. Petersen, Nelson became the member of the Quorum of the Twelve and Dallin H. Oaks was also sustained in the same position.
Between 2007 and 2015, he served as a member of the Church Boards of Trustees/Education, which is the governing body of the Church Educational System. He was later elected as the chairman of its executive committee.
On July 3, 2015, the president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of the LDS Church Boyd K. Packer passed away, and Nelson effectively became the senior most member of the Quorum of the Twelve and was later ordained the quorum's president.
On July 15, 2015, Nelson was formally set apart to be the quorum president by Thomas S. Monson.
His first assignment as the quorum president was to supervise the church’s activities in Eastern Europe. While in Bulgaria, he attended the first few meetings between the LDS Church leaders and government officials. Nelson also visited Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland, Ukraine, Croatia, Slovenia, Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Kosovo.
As the first member of the Quorum of the Twelve to travel to Kazakhstan, Nelson met government officials and gave an interview to the Yuzhnaya Stalitsa television. He also visited China and forged close professional relationships with the medical community there. Prior to his visit to the country, he achieved preliminary proficiency in Mandarin.
Thomas Monson died on January 2, 2018, and subsequently, Nelson was assumed to be the likely successor to the presidency. On January 14, 2018, the church ordained and set apart Nelson and announced the news to the media and general church members on 16 January.
Nelson brought about several important changes to the church policies. However, most of these changes had been previously discussed in-depth while he had not assumed his position as the president yet and a considerable few were simply the continuation of the measures that his predecessor had implemented.
During the April general conference, Nelson revealed that he is seeking to dissolve the high priest groups at the ward level. He also announced that home teaching and visiting teaching would be abolished and the programs ministering would be rebranded.
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Nelson introduced the initiative of allowing young women in the ages of 14-18 to be assigned as ministering sisters. In April 2018, he travelled all over the world and came across people of the LDS faith in London, England; Jerusalem; Nairobi, Kenya; Harare, Zimbabwe; Bengaluru, India; Bangkok, Thailand; Hong Kong; and Laie, Hawaii.
On June 18, 2018, the church revealed that the First Presidency has established several committees that have been assigned the task to create one hymnbook for the church. It will be translated in various languages and each translated version will have the same hymns in the same order.
In 1997, Russell M. Nelson won University of Utah’s Distinguished Alumni Award.
Nelson was awarded the Heart of Gold Award by American Heart Association in 2002.
He received the Golden Plate Award from the American Academy of Achievement.
In 2014, the University of Minnesota Medical School honoured Nelson with the Surgical Alumnus of the Year Award.
In 2018, he became the recipient of Utah Technology Innovation Summit’s Governor's Medal of Science: Lifetime Achievement Award.
The University of Utah set up a chair in cardiothoracic surgery named after him and his late first wife Dantzel in June 2018.
He has also received honorary degrees from Brigham Young University (Doctor of Science) in 1970, Utah State University (Doctor of Medical Science) in 1989, and Snow College (Doctor of Humane Letters) in 1994.
Russell M. Nelson and his first wife, fellow University of Utah student Dantzel White, met while they both were attending college. After dating for three years, the couple married on August 31, 1945, in the Salt Lake Temple. They had ten children together, nine daughters, Rosalie, Sylvia, Marsha, Wendy, Brenda, Emily, Laurie, Marjorie, and Gloria, and one son, Russell. On January 29, 1995, Emily died of cancer when she was 37 years old.
On February 12, 2005, Nelson lost his first wife unexpectedly. She was 78 at the time of her sudden death. He remarried the following year. His second wife is the Canadian nurse and educator Wendy L. Watson. This ceremony took place at the Salt Lake Temple as well. This is Watson’s first marriage.
Nelson has published several books over the years, including a memoir titled ‘From Heart to Heart’ (1979).