The Friendship of Two Heart Doctors

By Mary-Wynne Ashford | 2021-12-31 20:00:00

International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW) is mourning the deaths this year of its founding co-presidents, Dr. Bernard Lown and Dr. Evgueni Chazov. Lown was a cardiologist in Boston; Chazov was a cardiologist in Moscow.

As colleagues with shared interests, Lown and Chazov began collaborative research in 1960. They were particularly concerned about sudden cardiac death in young men.

Both received many awards and honours for their achievements in cardiology. Lown was renowned for inventing the cardiac defibrillator, but warned against making medicine so technical the patient would be lost in the relationship. His practice drew patients from around the world, including King Hussein of Jordan.

Dr. Chazov was responsible for the health of successive Soviet leaders, he was an academician, and he was Director of the Moscow Cardiologic Centre from 1976. It is one of the largest such centres in the world. He later became Minister of Health in the Soviet Government.

In 1966, a medical student named James Muller studied Russian and became fascinated by the possibility of spending five months of his undergraduate period studying medicine in Moscow. When he graduated he continued to build his connections with colleagues in both the US and the USSR. He greatly admired Lown and had the honor to study with Chazov. With his fluency in Russian, he was an important link in the development of medical collaborations between the US and USSR.

By 1960 public opposition to atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons was becoming heated and doctors were warning about the danger of radioactive fallout that was depositing Strontium-90 in the teeth and bones of children. In 1961, Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR) was founded, and Lown became the first President.

Other American physicians, particularly cardiologists, were also carrying out collaborative research with Soviet colleagues, and Muller was facilitating exchanges as he continued his cardiology graduate training. He assisted Chazov when he came to tour in the US.

Muller and Lown had become deeply alarmed by the threat of nuclear war and were committed to increasing medical connections between the US and the USSR. In 1980, four American and three Soviet physicians met in Geneva to found International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War.

The new organization grew quickly and by 1985 it had over 135,000 members in 40 countries. It won the UNESCO Peace Education Prize in 1984.

Lown was a brilliant speaker and writer who inspired hundreds of thousands of doctors to join in the movement for nuclear disarmament. Meetings of Lown and Chazov with Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev influenced the Soviet leader to press for nuclear disarmament in his meetings with US President Ronald Reagan.

What was significant about IPPNW was that it reframed nuclear weapons as an existential threat to public health, and thus undermined the argument that these horrific weapons were needed to ensure security.

IPPNW was also significant because the professional exchanges of physicians crossing the line of the Iron Curtain encouraged teachers, scientists, engineers and journalists to meet with their counterparts in a process that became known as Track Two Diplomacy. Popular stories of exchanges between East and West reduced stereotyping of the enemy. People began to press for reduction of nuclear arsenals. The Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to IPPNW in 1985. The Nobel citation recognized IPPNW for “considerable service to mankind by spreading authoritative information and by creating an awareness of the catastrophic consequences of atomic warfare.”

The Award to IPPNW was controversial at the time, because it was the peak of the Cold War. Hostile press commented that doctors were the dupes of the Soviets, and one headline said, “KGB wins Nobel Peace Prize”. Here is an account by IPPNW of the dramatic events at the press conference in Oslo:

“10 AM: Members of IPPNW‘s Executive Committee meet the international press at a press conference. Most questions are more focused on Andrei Sakharov than on IPPNW. The room is stuffy, the atmosphere tense. Suddenly a journalist slumps over in his chair and begins convulsing—the victim of a sudden cardiac arrest. An international team of IPPNW physicians rushes to his aid as the press conference dissolves into a battle for the life of Lev Novikov, a cameraman for Soviet television. When Novikov is taken to an ambulance it is thought that the efforts to save him have failed. Later, word comes from Oslo’s Rikshospitalet that Novikov is alive but in critical condition. He eventually recovers.”

When the press conference resumed Dr. Lown had this to say:

“We have just witnessed what doctoring is about. When faced with a dire emergency of sudden cardiac arrest, doctors do not inquire whether the patient was a good person or a criminal. We do not delay treatment to learn the politics or character of the victim. We respond not as ideologues, nor as Russians nor Americans, but as doctors. The only thing that matters is saving a human life. We work with colleagues, whatever their political persuasion, whether capitalist or Communist. This very culture permeates IPPNW. The world is threatened with sudden nuclear death. We work with doctors whatever their political convictions to save our endangered home. You have just witnessed IPPNW in action.”

In their acceptance addresses, Lown and Chazov both referred to the moral imperative for physicians to stand up against the threat of nuclear war as part of their commitment to prevent suffering and death.

Lown said, “We physicians protest the outrage of holding the entire world hostage. We protest the moral obscenity that each of us is being continuously targeted for extinction. We protest the ongoing increase in overkill. We protest the expansion of the arms race to space. We protest the diversion of scarce resources from aching human needs. Dialogue without deeds brings the calamity ever closer, as snail-paced diplomacy is outdistanced by missile-propelled technology. We physicians demand deeds to implement further deeds which will lead to the abolition of all nuclear weaponry.”

Chazov said, “True to the Hippocratic Oath, we cannot keep silent knowing what final epidemic—nuclear war—can bring to humankind. The bell of Hiroshima rings in our hearts not as a funeral knell, but as an alarm bell calling out to actions to protect life on our planet….

…we are obliged to avert transformation of the Earth from a flourishing planet into a heap of smoking ruins. Our duty is to hand it over to our successors in a better state than it was inherited by us. Therefore, it is not for fame, but for the happiness and for the future of all mothers and children, that we—International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War—have worked, are working and will work.”

I was privileged to serve on the IPPNW Council and work with doctors Lown and Chazov from 1985. Their tireless energy and deep friendship inspired IPPNW to take on major international projects. They demanded the highest level of scientific integrity and dedication from all who worked with IPPNW. My life and my medical practice were enriched by knowing both of them and watching them express the highest ideals of our profession in their lives.

Mary-Wynne Ashford, MD, PhD, was Co-President of IPPNW 1998-2002.

Peace Magazine January-March 2022

Peace Magazine January-March 2022, page 8. Some rights reserved.

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