Sauerbruch was born in Barmen (now a district of Wuppertal), Germany. He studied medicine at the Philipps University of Marburg, the University of Greifswald, the Friedrich Schiller University of Jena, and the University of Leipzig, from the last of which he graduated in 1902. He went to Breslau in 1903, where he developed the Sauerbruch chamber, a pressure chamber for operating on the open thorax, which he demonstrated in 1904. This invention was a breakthrough in thorax medicine and allowed heart and lung operations to take place at greatly reduced risk. As a battlefield surgeon during World War I, he developed several new types of limb prostheses, which for the first time enabled simple movements to be executed with the remaining muscle of the patient.
Sauerbruch worked at the Ludwig Maximilians University of Munich from 1918 to 1927 on surgical techniques and diets for treating tuberculosis. From 1928 to 1949, he was the head of the surgical department at the Charité in Berlin, attaining international fame for his innovative operations. Because of his experience and extraordinary skills he quickly attained an international reputation and operated on many prominent patients. At the same time he was well known for his uncompromising and passionate dedication to all patients independent of their social, political or ethnical backgrounds. Before World War II, the Nazi Government awarded him the German National Prize for Art and Science. Sauerbruch position towards the Nazi government is ambiguous and the subject of debate. In his position he was clearly in contact with the political elite but he was never a member of and did not support the political objectives of the NSDAP. He was, however, a fervent nationalist who wanted to undo the "humiliation of Versailles" and was keen to show off his country as an advanced and sophisticated society. While he had accepted the German Nationalpreis, a short-lived German alternative to the Nobel Prize, he also publicly spoke out for people who were prosecuted (e.g. Liebermann). He was part of the so-called Mittwochgesellschaft, a group of scientists that included critical voices and was later arrested because his son Peter had ties to Claus von Stauffenberg.
In 1937, he became a member of the newly established Reichsforschungsrat (Reich Research Council) that supported "research projects" of the SS, including experiments on prisoners in the concentration camps. As head of the General Medicine Branch of the RRC, he personally approved the funds which financed August Hirts experiments with mustard gas on prisoners at Natzweiler concentration camp from 1941 until 1944. However he was one of the few University professors who publicly spoke out against the NS-Euthanasia program T4. In 1942, he became Surgeon General to the army. In mid-September 1943, Sauerbruch was awarded the Knight's Cross of the War Merit Cross with Swords. On 12 October 1945, he was charged by the Allies for having contributed to the Nazi dictatorship, but not convicted for lack of evidence.
Sauerbruch stayed at his hospital throughout the whole war, his operating theatre was literally taken by the Red Army in 1945. Late in life, he became demented and was dismissed from the Charité because he continued to perform surgeries on patients, some with uncertain results. His colleagues detected the errors but were unable to stop him because of his fame and power (for an account, see Youngson, 1997).
Sauerbruch died in Berlin at the age of seventy-five. His life was portrayed in the German 1954 film Sauerbruch – Das war mein Leben, which is based on his memoirs Das war mein Leben, although the validity of these memoirs (written by the journalist Hans Rudolf Berndorff) is contested by Sauerbruch's disciple Rudolf Nissen. He is buried in Berlin-Wannsee.
His oldest son Hans Sauerbruch (1910–1996) became a painter; he lived in Berlin, Rome and after the war in Konstanz where his son, the architect Matthias Sauerbruch, was born. Ernest's second son Peter Sauerbruch (5 June 1913 – 29 September 2010) was a recipient of the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross on 4 January 1943 as a Hauptmann in the general staff of the 14. Panzer-Division and leader of a Kampfgruppe "Sauerbruch". He lived in Hamburg and Munich. The third son, Friedrich Sauerbruch, was a surgeon as well. He assisted his father and was actually responsible for the termination of his fathers activities at the Charité (which had become too risky due to his illness). He lived in Berlin and later in Moers.
- Pathways to Human Experimentation, 1933-1945: Germany, Japan, and the United States by Gerhard Baader, Susan E. Lederer, Morris Low, Florian Schmaltz and Alexander V. Schwerin, Osiris, 2nd Series, Vol. 20, Politics and Science in Wartime: Comparative International Perspectives on the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute (2005), p216
- Youngson RM (1997). "The demented surgeon is operating". Medical Curiosities. New York: Carroll & Graf.
- Dubious Role Models:Study Reveals Many German Schools Still Named After Nazis Jan Friedmann 02/04/2009 Spiegel Online
- Ferdinand Sauerbruch: Das war mein Leben, Autobiography, 639 pages, Kindler u. Schiermeyer 1951
- Marc Dewey, MD, Udo Schagen, MD, Wolfgang Eckart, MD and Eva Schönenberger: Ernst Ferdinand Sauerbruch and his ambiguous role in the period of National Socialism. Surgical Retrospective in Annals of Surgery, Volume 224, Number 2, August 2006
- Friedolf Kudlien und Christian Andree: Sauerbruch und der Nationalsozialismus. Medizinhistorisches Journal, Band 15, 1980
- Rudolf Nissen, Helle Blätter, dunkle Blätter, Erinnerungen eines Chirurgen, Page 142 ff.
- Rolf Winau, Die Berliner Charité als Zentrum der Chirurgie: Ferdinand Sauerbruchs Lebensleistung und sein Verhältnis zum Nationalsozialismus aus Meilensteine der Medizin, Hrsg Heinz Schott, 1996
- Media related to Ferdinand Sauerbruch at Wikimedia Commons
- Excerpt from the movie Die willkürlich bewegbare künstliche Hand (1937) by Sauerbruch