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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Prescription for Survival

Air Date: Week of

Dr. Lown with Mikhail Gorbachev (photo credit: Novosti Press Agency, Moscow)

Sixty-three years after the nuclear genie was let out of the bottle with the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the threat of nuclear warfare persists. But Dr. Bernard Lown, cardiologist and Nobel Peace Prize recipient, has a prescription for survival. He talks about it and his journey to save the planet during the Cold War with host Bruce Gellerman.


GELLERMAN: Dr. Bernard Lown's home in Newton, Massachusetts, is filled with memories. He keeps many of them in 85 large scrapbooks--


LOWN: Look, Allen Ginsberg was my patient. Look, Lawrence Ferlinghetti.

GELLERMAN: Poets, politicians, painters, and celebrities. Over the span of his career as a world-renowned cardiologist, 87-year-old Dr. Lown has treated them all.

Among the 5,000 books in his home is Dr. Lown’s first: "The Lost Art of Healing: Practicing Compassion in Medicine." He is professor emeritus at the Harvard School of Public Health, and the inventor of the heart-starting defibrillator.

LOWN: I was very successful medically, I developed a host of instruments, I revolutionized part of cardiology, and I was riding high and I was concerned with the issue of sudden death-

GELLERMAN: For people, and the planet. In 1985, Dr. Lown won the Nobel prize-- not for medicine, but for peace, sharing the honor with Soviet cardiologist Evgeni Chazov. Together, they founded International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War.

Dr. Lown chronicles the history of the organization in his new book "Prescription for Survival: A Doctor's Journey to End Nuclear Madness" It's a behind-the-scenes look at the Cold War drama played out on the world stage, with a who's who list of characters-- their photos featured in the foyer of Dr. Lown’s home

L OWN: This is my first meeting with Gorbachev, that's Cardinal Madeiros, that is the great scientist Victor Weiskopf, and this is...

Dr. Lown with Mikhail Gorbachev (Novosti Press Agency, Moscow)

GELLERMAN: There's Fidel Castro with Dr. Lown, the King of Jordan, Leonid Breshnev-- and in the place of honor, an original photograph of Albert Einstein.

LOWN: Life is full of contradictions. The good frequently do bad, and the bad sometimes do good.

GELLERMAN: It was Albert Einstein on August 2nd, 1939 who sent a letter to FDR, telling the president that uranium could be split to produce a bomb more powerful than anything ever created, and warning that Nazi scientists were working on one.

Two years later, a day before Pearl Harbor was attacked, the United States started what would become known as the Manhattan Project. Three years after that, on August 6, 1945, the U.S. dropped an atom bomb on Hiroshima, Japan.


CBS RADIO REPORT: Tokyo admits extensive damage caused by the atomic bomb at Hiroshima. New air attacks have been thrown against Japan. Washington and other allied capitals are buzzing with speculation about the new bomb and its possibilities. [FADES]

GELLERMAN: Three days later, the U.S. dropped another atomic bomb- on Nagasaki.


GELLERMAN: The two bombs killed an estimated 200,000 people- the overwhelming majority, civilians.

LOWN: A nuclear weapon is an instrument of genocide, it's not a weapon of war. Whom does it kill? It kills not only people, culture, environment. It destroys everything. Such a weapon is a Hitlerite weapon and we democratic people with a deep moral sense that we pride ourselves have such weapons stockpiled?

GELLERMAN: When you won the Nobel Prize in 1985, how many nuclear weapons were there?

LOWN: There were at the time about 16,000 megatons, roughly 50,000 nuclear weapons. A megaton is one million tons of TNT. Now one million tons of TNT would take a train 400 miles long to transport. We had enough destructive capacity to kill everybody alive 20 times over.

GELLERMAN: Today, 23 years later after you won the Nobel, how much megatonnage is there, how many nuclear weapons?

LOWN: We have roughly about 15,000, we and the Russians. But it doesn’t matter, because we have enough to destroy the world. What does it matter when you have the capacity to destroy the world twice or five times?

GELLERMAN: But my question to you is, 23 years after you’ve won the Nobel Prize, we’ve got, we still have this incredible capacity to commit mass genocide, suicide. Have you succeeded, or did you fail?

LOWN: Well, both. We succeeded in the fact that instant extinction is not on the agenda. Did we eliminate nuclear weapons? Of course not. Did we teach a lot of people understanding and creative a deterrence to their use? Yes, because we gave them an image of what would happen. We gave them an image in terms of fire, destruction, radiation. We have in essence gained time for human beings.

GELLERMAN: Tell me about the co-founder of the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, Yevgeny Chazov.

LOWN: Chazov is the ultimate doctor. He wanted to develop cardiology in Russia to the level of what he knew to be in the United States, which he respected enormously. And he was a consummate doctor.

GELLERMAN: And a consummate politician. Among Dr. Chazov's patients were members of the Soviet Politburo. Between them, the two doctors had personal and professional relationships with some of the major players of the Cold War. Within just five years, their organization, International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, had grown to 150,000 doctors worldwide.

But they had enemies as well. The Wall Street Journal called Dr. Lown a "tool of the communists" and said he and Dr. Chazov didn't deserve the Nobel Peace Prize.

GELLERMAN: The day before you getting the Nobel Prize in Norway, December 9th, 1985, and some photojournalist, a cameraman, has heart attack. You wind up, with Chazov, saving his life.

LOWN: Look at the serendipity, the coincidence. We are reviled in the press, we’re sitting in a press conference, it’s filled with journalists, red-baiting, attacking as viciously as you can imagine, Chazov primarily. In this packed news conference a Russian journalist is raising his hand and next I look around he’s on the floor, he has collapsed. Chazov and I were next to him and I’ve dealt with sudden death all my life. I recognize that it’s a cardiac arrest, it is clear to any doctor, and the place is also full of doctors.

So we start pumping on his chest and start ventilating him. And the rescue team is slow in coming, they come late, and there they roll in- the very cardio defibrillator I developed. And to me, I’m living in some other world. This couldn’t happen by chance. And they shock him, and he doesn’t recover. And the body’s led out. As they rolled him out, one of the American doctors says, ‘lets give him another shock’ and they did, and he came back. And I, almost in tears, say, ‘Look, what you have just seen is what doctoring is all about and what our movement is all about. When somebody’s threatened with cardiac arrest, we don’t ask who they are, or what they do, what their politics are, we try to save a human life. And now we’re trying to save the life of this world.’

GELLERMAN: Well, we now have this business of nuclear weapons that is a trillion dollar business, that we’re still very much in business, and still has the potential to destroy the planet and everything on it many many times over.

LOWN: But the good news is that in the Wall Street Journal a year ago, Shultz, Kissinger, Nunn, Perry, and others who were architects, essentially, of this age, the Nuclear Age, are having second thoughts. Look, now, many conservatives are coming around to believing global warming. All of these could have been foreseen. And I as a doctor realize that cure is not answer. The answer is prevention. And prevention is anticipation, is analysis. You have to know the past, and Orwell makes a marvelous statement, he says, ‘whoever controls the past, controls the future, and whoever controls the present, controls the past.’

GELLERMAN: Dr. Bernard Lown’s book, “Prescription for Survival,” is an attempt to preserve the past. To write it, he tried to get his files from the federal government.


LOWN: Look.

GELLERMAN: And he got them.

LOWN: Look.


LOWN: Page after page after page totally blacked out, nothing there.

GELLERMAN: There’s nothing there. The only word on the page is “Secret-Classified by G-3.” That’s it.

LOWN: I just got a report a few months ago from the Freedom of Information from NSA, FBI, CIA, saying we regard it as against national security to divulge to you your file.

GELLERMAN: Here you are a physician trying to prevent the use of nuclear weapons, what kind of threat could you be?

LOWN: Why are you asking me, why aren’t you asking the CIA that question? I mean you’re asking me. I’m the victim.


GELLERMAN: You know you're not just a witness to history, you made history, you changed history.

LOWN: Well, I didn’t view myself other than a doctor who’s trying to heal a sick planet.

GELLERMAN: Dr. Bernard Lown, co-founder of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, and author of the new book “Prescription for Survival: A Doctor's Journey to End Nuclear Madness.”



For more about Dr. Lown’s book, click here

International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War


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