Isaac Zhorov was born in Mogilev in 1898. His father Solomon, a leatherworker, had served in the Tsarist army in his youth.
After completing an 8-year school, Isaac Zhorov made repeated attempts to enroll in a medical school, intending to become a paramedic. However, his application was denied because of the "Jewish quota" limiting the number of Jewish students at universities and secondary educational institutions. He was finally admitted in 1915, after his third attempt. Zhorov was able to combine his studies with medical practice in the surrounding countryside, where he treated the local peasants. On one occasion, Isaac even had to sell his boots to buy medicine for a patient.
Following the October Revolution of 1917, Isaac Zhorov, seemingly gripped with revolutionary fervor, joined the Red Army, without interrupting his medical studies. He fought in the Civil War, serving in the VchK (the All-Russian Extraordinary Commission), and was later given the option of transferring to a military school. However, he declined, regarding medicine as his most important duty.
Shortly thereafter, Isaac moved to Moscow, enrolling in the Faculty of Medicine of Moscow University, from which he graduated with distinction in 1921. He was privileged to be taught by the prominent medical scientists Pierre Herzen and Nikolay Burdenko.
After his graduation, Isaac Zhorov worked first as an ordinary surgeon, and later as chief surgeon, at various hospitals in Moscow.
In the late 1920s, the Soviet authorities sent him to Germany for postgraduate studies (at the time, this was still an option). He wrote his thesis in German.
In his publications, Zhorov devoted particular attention to surgical anesthesia and anesthesiology. In the late 1930s, Zhorov became chief surgical consultant in Moscow.
Following the German invasion of the USSR on June 22, 1941, Isaac Zhorov volunteered for frontline duty. Shortly prior to that, he had developed an anesthetic, which he successfully tested on himself.
From the earliest days of combat, Zhorov served as chief surgeon of the 33rd Army, which saw heavy fighting in the Moscow area from September 1941 to April 1942. After one of the battles – having to deal with a large number of wounded soldiers, and facing constant German air raids on the villages where those wounded were housed – the authorities decided to relocate the hospital into the forest. A physician was needed. Zhorov and a small team of his colleagues were airdropped into the area where the wounded were gathered, and they proceeded to set up a field hospital. The new anesthetic that he had invented was of great help to him, since he was able to inject it into the bandages, easing the agony of the wounded somewhat.
Soon, Zhorov himself fell ill, but he refused to be evacuated to the rear. In this, he was supported and encouraged by General Mikhail Yefremov, commander of the 33rd Army.
In April 1942, during the Rzhev-Vyazma Operation, a part of the 33rd Army was surrounded. The shell-shocked Isaac Zhorov was taken prisoner.
Fortunately, he carried no documents identifying him as a Jew, and was therefore not killed on the spot. He claimed to be a Georgian, and the Germans believed him. Along with other wounded POWs, Zhorov was sent to a hospital in an occupied village in the Smolensk Oblast. There, he began to treat the other patients, despite not being fully recovered himself. The hospital was in a woeful condition, lacking even the most basic medical supplies. As there were no surgical implements, Zhorov had a scalpel manufactured for him by local residents according to a drawing he had made. With no anesthetics of any kind, he would give the patients some moonshine before operating on them. Eventually, the hospital began to receive a stream of visitors from the surrounding villages. Once, Zhorov saved the life of a German officer through a successful surgery. After this incident, the Germans gained a new respect for him. Having finally earned the enemy's trust, Zhorov became head of a clandestine group that rescued wounded POWs. The group members would fool the Germans into thinking that these POWs had died, and then smuggle the still-living men out of the camp, handing them over to local partisans.
In September 1943, following the liberation of the Smolensk Oblast by the Red Army, many former POWs, with Zhorov among them, were carefully screened by the NKVD (the People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs). The Soviet authorities treated Jewish POWs with deep suspicion. On the one hand, it was known that Jews would not cross over to the enemy side willingly, because the Nazis would kill them; on the other hand, the very fact of their survival in Nazi-occupied territory – even under false names – puzzled the Soviet interrogators, turning the Jewish POWs into suspected collaborators. However, after a while, having endured a string of humiliating interrogations, Isaac Zhorov was returned to the 1st Belorussian Front as chief surgeon. He was in charge of the medical support of such crucial operations as the Vistula-Oder Offensive of winter 1945 and the Battle of Berlin in spring of that year.
Over the course of the war, Lieutenant Colonel Isaac Zhorov was awarded two Orders of the Patriotic War, 1st Class; an Order of the Patriotic War, 2nd Class; an Order of the Red Star, and some medals. After the Battle of Berlin, Marshal Konstantin Rokossovsky gifted him a car as a token of his gratitude.
Following the end of the war, Isaac Zhorov returned to Moscow and resumed his investigations into various types of anesthesia. He also taught students and headed the Department of Surgery of the Moscow Medical Academy (the Sechenov University).
In 1953, as the "Doctors' Plot" was getting into high gear, and prominent Jewish doctors were being arrested on drummed-up charges, Isaac Zhorov spoke out in defense of the accused, referring to them as "the pride of Soviet medicine". Naturally, this courageous action drew the ire of the Soviet security apparatus. Zhorov was arrested immediately after his speech and accused of anti-Soviet propaganda. The famous Soviet marshals Georgy Zhukov and Konstantin Rokossovsky appealed to Stalin on Zhorov's behalf, but their efforts were in vain. He was released from jail and rehabilitated only after Stalin's death in March 1953.
Shortly thereafter, he was restored to the post of department head at the Medical Academy. Isaac Zhorov was a prolific author, with more than 160 published works to his name.
In 1965, he published a book of memoirs titled In the Enemy's Rear near Vyazma, which recounted the terrible events of the war years.
Isaac Zhorov died in 1976, and was buried at the Vagankovo Cemetery in Moscow.
His son Vladimir (born 1924) was a frontline combatant, as well. Serving in a tank corps, he was once trapped in a burning tank, but managed to survive. He was awarded the Order of the Red Star, as well as some medals. Like his father before him, he chose to devote his life to medicine, eventually becoming a professor. He, too, invented a new anesthetic, which he dedicated to his father's memory.