The man who has the attention of presidents

In June 2009, United States President Barack Obama called an emergency meeting of his healthcare honchos right after reading an essay by American surgeon Atul Gawande in The New Yorker.

Gawande, 49, had exposed two things in that piece: First, that Americans paying top dollar for medical treatments were not necessarily getting the best care and, second, that doctors were mainly responsible for this conundrum.

He himself is a conundrum, having been a staff writer for The New Yorker since 1998, on top of being a renowned surgeon in Boston and the head of Ariadne Labs, which is driving innovation in medicine. As a testament to the last, Gawande won the MacArthur "Genius" award in 2007 for his work there.

Not surprisingly, he was a wunderkind. Born in Brooklyn to Indian parents who left their country for a new life in the US, he grew up in the college town of Athens, Ohio, and majored in biology and political science at Stanford University.

After that, he was made a Rhodes Scholar and studied philosophy, politics and economics at Oxford University for four years. He followed this up by enrolling at Harvard Medical School, still not sure what exactly his calling was.

Two years into his Harvard course, aged 26, US President Bill Clinton picked him to head his administration's healthcare and social policy unit. He returned to Harvard, went on to its school of public health and fell in love with surgery, which he likened to politics in its "limited knowledge and imperfect science", but which also gave him a chance to make society better.

He also fancied himself a scribe, albeit one who needed a lot of editing at first. Then his friend, a co-founder of Slate.com in 1996, got him to write on medical issues. Soon, he was getting 300,000 hits on the website, which convinced The New Yorker to hire him.

Truth be told, this best-selling writer says, all he had really wanted to be was a rocker and has played in bands with names such as Thousands Of Breaded Shrimp.

The married father of three has since given up on that dream, but is thrilled that his children are promising musicians.

Asked why he is driven to dabble in so many different fields, he likes to say that his tombstone would read: "He kept his options open."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 16, 2015, with the headline 'The man who has the attention of presidents'. Print Edition | Subscribe