Physician Diplomacy

Physicians first confronted the horrors of nuclear war in 1945 following the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In the late 1950s and early 1960s physicians played a key role in the debate over atmospheric tests of nuclear weapons and the health effects of radioactive fallout. In 1961, Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR) was organized by a small group of Boston -area doctors. Among them were Bernard Lown, Jack Geiger, Victor Sidel and Sidney Alexander. In a series of groundbreaking articles in The New England Journal of Medicine, they described the medical consequences of a nuclear detonation over a major city in graphic, uncompromising detail.

Yet, the possibility that nuclear weapons might cause an unprecedented catastrophe for humanity did not halt the nuclear arms race. With the cold war raging in the late 1970s, Dr. Lown and several other American physicians, including James Muller and Herbert Abrams, both at Harvard Medical School, began discussing ideas to foster medical cooperation between physicians of the two superpowers.

Drs. Muller and Lown, both cardiologists, had long-standing personal and professional ties to colleagues in the Soviet Union, including Dr. Evgueni Chazov, director of the USSR Cardiological Institute. In 1979 and early in 1980, Dr. Lown wrote Dr. Chazov with their proposal to create a Soviet-American physicians’ movement to prevent nuclear war. The proposal reasoned that physicians from East and West — sharing traditions, language, and practices that transcend national boundaries — could spearhead a worldwide movement away from nuclear disaster.

At the same time, PSR, under the leadership of Drs. Eric Chivian and Helen Caldicott, were building a powerful new US constituency against nuclear weapons. In February 1980, PSR held the first major American conference on medicine and nuclear war. An open letter followed to President Carter and General Secretary Brezhnev urging them to assist the formation of a US-Soviet medical organization on the nuclear danger. PSR leaders were then invited to the White House and the Soviet Embassy, where Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin conveyed support from the General Secretary and delivered a supportive letter to the proposal outlined earlier by Dr. Lown.

In December 1980, an historic meeting was held in Geneva among three US doctors (Lown, Muller, and Chivian) and three Soviets (Chazov, Leonid Ilyin, and Mikhail Kuzin) to lay the international foundations of IPPNW. A few short years later, the organization was awarded the 1984 UNESCO Peace Education Prize and the Nobel Peace Prize in 1985.

Since the 1980s, IPPNW has pursued a broad-based, free-flowing dialogue among physicians, health workers and medical students — East, West, North, and South — in pursuit of a more peaceful world order without nuclear weapons.