September 7, 2011

Can you tell me about the founding of PSR?
In the spring of 1961, I was telephoned by Bernard Lown in Bethesda, where I was completing a two-year appointment at the National Heart Institute. Lown, a Boston cardiologist who knew I was returning to the Peter Bent Brigham Hospital that July to complete my residency in Internal Medicine, invited me to join a group that was meeting to discuss issues of war and peace.  The group included Sidney Alexander, who was later elected president of PSR, David Nathan, Roy Menninger, and other young physicians concerned with the risks of nuclear war.  Lown recruited Jack Geiger, several others and me to join a team that wrote a series of articles published by the New England Journal of Medicine in 1962 on the “Medical Consequences of Thermonuclear War.” The articles were attributed to a “Special Study Section” of the newly-formed Physicians for Social Responsibility and led many physicians from all over the United States to request information about the new group.

What is the impact PSR has had over the last 50 years?
Through publications and presentations, PSR has kept alive discussion of the medical risks of use of nuclear weapons, nuclear tests, and nuclear power plants. If PSR had not existed, a medical voice in opposing these risks would not have been effectively heard.

What have been some highlights of your involvement in PSR?
One highlight was the adoption of the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, which President John F. Kennedy negotiated with the Soviet Union in 1963.  PSR played an important role in collecting children’s deciduous (baby) teeth to show the deposit of strontium-90 in the teeth—which could only have come from the fall-out of atmospheric nuclear weapons tests. That treaty covered nuclear tests in the atmosphere, underwater and in space. Since then, PSR has been urging adoption of a comprehensive test ban treaty that would ban all nuclear tests.  Another exciting moment was the award in 1985 of the Nobel Peace Prize to the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW), formed at the initiative of Lown and Yevgueni Chazov, a Soviet cardiologist, in 1980.  PSR and IPPNW have been advocating for the ending of proliferation of nuclear weapons around the world and for a Nuclear Weapons Convention similar to the Chemical Weapons Convention and the Anti-Personnel Landmines Convention.

What are we, as PSR, recommitting ourselves to now?
PSR now works in number of different areas to help prevent the medical consequences of problems that cannot be effectively treated.  These include not only nuclear war and the existence of nuclear power plants, but also problems caused by climate change and gun violence. With regard to nuclear weapons, PSR is promoting ways to prevent of use of these weapons not only by nation-states but also by sub-national groups, often called “terrorist” organizations. PSR has been publicizing the consequences of a relatively-small nuclear war, such as between India and Pakistan. This would not only be disastrous for these two countries, but the cloud of dust and soot formed by the explosion of even a small number of nuclear weapons would cause wide areas of famine.

What are next steps for PSR?
PSR needs to expand its membership not only of physicians, but also of nurses, other health workers and other supporters. Areas of social responsibility that have been inadequately explored are the ways in which social injustice, such as the diversion of resources to war, can lead to disease, disability and lack of medical care and other outreach. It’s also very important for PSR to expand its role as part of the international coalition IPPNW.

Can you give a glimpse into the talks you’ll give in San Francisco in October?
Two talks are scheduled in San Francisco. One is a lunchtime talk at the University of California San Francisco on the important role played by medical students in the work of PSR and IPPNW over the years. Medical and other health professions students need encouragement to join in this work.  The second is an evening talk at the home of Tom Hall and Elizabeth McLoughlin at which the history of PSR and the reasons it has thrived for 50 years will be explored.

What’s something special you’d like to share from these 50 years?
One of the wonderful things about PSR is the friendships and camaraderie that have developed.  Friends like Bernard Lown, Sid Alexander, and Tom Hall are examples.  At this year’s American Public Health Association Annual Meeting, the Peace Caucus, with which PSR has worked closely, will co-host a session honoring Jack Geiger. Chapters of PSR throughout the United States have permitted these friendships and our work together to be more effective.

Do you have any last words you’d like to share?
Since I’m coming to speak in San Francisco and Sacramento, I want to recognize the wonderful work Bob Gould, Pat Sutton, Harry Wang and many others have done. It’s been a great pleasure working with them over the years.

Interview by Emily Galpern