By Philip Elmer-DeWitt
March 5, 2008

Fortune magazine investigative reporter Peter Elkind, who co-authored The Smartest Guys in the Room, the definitive account of the Enron meltdown, spent the better part of a year investigating Steve Jobs. He talked to more than 50 people who knew and worked with Jobs, including former Apple (AAPL) CEOs and current members of the board — nearly everybody, it seems, except Jobs, who refused to be interviewed for the piece.

The resulting article is the cover story of the current issue. It’s a great read, with more fresh details about Jobs’ life and management style than any profile I’ve ever read. Perhaps the most telling detail is the one laid out in the story’s lead paragraphs:

In October 2003, as the computer world buzzed about what cool new gadget he would introduce next, Apple CEO Steve Jobs – then presiding over the most dramatic corporate turnaround in the history of Silicon Valley – found himself confronting a life-and-death decision.

During a routine abdominal scan, doctors had discovered a tumor growing in his pancreas. While a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer is often tantamount to a swiftly executed death sentence, a biopsy revealed that Jobs had a rare – and treatable – form of the disease. If the tumor were surgically removed, Jobs’ prognosis would be promising: The vast majority of those who underwent the operation survived at least ten years.

Yet to the horror of the tiny circle of intimates in whom he’d confided, Jobs was considering not having the surgery at all. A Buddhist and vegetarian, the Apple CEO was skeptical of mainstream medicine. Jobs decided to employ alternative methods to treat his pancreatic cancer, hoping to avoid the operation through a special diet – a course of action that hasn’t been disclosed until now.

For nine months Jobs pursued this approach, as Apple’s board of directors and executive team secretly agonized over the situation – and whether the company needed to disclose anything about its CEO’s health to investors. Jobs, after all, was widely viewed as Apple’s irreplaceable leader, personally responsible for everything from the creation of the iPod to the selection of the chef in the company cafeteria. News of his illness, especially with an uncertain outcome, would surely send the company’s stock reeling. The board decided to say nothing, after seeking advice on its obligations from two outside lawyers, who agreed it could remain silent.

In the end, Jobs had the surgery, on Saturday, July 31, 2004, at Stanford University Medical Center in Palo Alto, near his home. The revelation of his brush with death remained – like everything involving Jobs and Apple – a tightly controlled affair. In fact, nary a word got out until Jobs’ tumor had been removed. The next day, in an upbeat e-mail to employees later released to the press, he announced that he had faced a life-threatening illness and was “cured.” Jobs assured everyone that he’d be back on the job in September. When trading resumed a day after the announcement, Apple shares fell just 2.4%.

You can read the full story here, as well as an accompanying article about Apple, Inc. by Betsy Morris for which Jobs did agree to be interviewed. Both are highly recommended.

Disclosure: I’m an editor at Fortune and was interviewed by Elkind for his piece.

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