Dr. Bernard Lown
Dr. Bernard Lown (1921-2021) was a pioneering cardiologist, humanitarian, and founder of the Lown Institute. From his invention of the modern direct current defibrillator to his advocacy of anti-nuclear proliferation, Dr. Lown saved countless lives and changed medicine forever. Learn more about Bernard Lown’s remarkable life in the timeline below!
Born in Utena, Lithuania
“I’m Jewish and I was born in Lithuania. Some members of my family were destroyed in the Holocaust. I came to this country as a boy. If I’d remained in Europe two more years I would not have survived. So the reality of war was part of my youth.” – Bernard Lown
Moves to Lewiston, Maine
Graduates from University of Maine
He earned a bachelor’s degree in zoology.
Receives MD from Johns Hopkins University
At Johns Hopkins, Lown was known for being an advocate for racial justice, which often got him into trouble. Lown was suspended from school for organizing a lecture by a Black physician on public health issues in the Black community, and he was briefly expelled for rebelling against the segregation of blood in the hospital’s blood bank.
Marries Louise Lown
Bernard and Louise stay together for 73 years until Louise’s death in 2019 and have three children.
“When you ask about my heroes, clearly I have many—my wife Louise foremost.” – Bernard Lown
With the support of his mentor Dr. Samuel Levine, Lown starts a study challenging the conventional wisdom of keeping heart attack patients on bed rest for 4-6 weeks, instead having them sit up in a comfortable chair. Patient outcomes improved dramatically, changing the standard of practice.
“I am not aware of a single cardiovascular measure since then that improved survival of CHD patients as much as this common sense change in medical management.” – Bernard Lown
Military service during McCarthyism
Dr. Lown was drafted as a Medical Corp captain during the Korean War – but honorably discharged, then redrafted as a private when he refused to name organizations with whom he had worked for peace and social justice.
Invents the direct current defibrillator
Working with fellow refugee and immigrant Baruch Berkovitz, Lown co-invents the direct current defibrillator, a device that would save countless lives and help make open-heart surgery possible.
Physicians for Social Responsibility
Dr. Lown founds Physicians for Social Responsibility to address the threat of nuclear war.
“I had been working so hard on sudden death, but Phillip Noel-Baker taught me that the real death threat in the world was not cardiac, but nuclear. I knew I had to do something. How could I be a doctor and close my eyes to this overwhelming reality?” – Bernard Lown
Coronary Care Unit
Dr. Lown organizes one of the first coronary care units focused on prevention of heart rhythm disorders at the Peter Brigham Hospital in Boston. He demonstrates that by using continuous electrocardiographic monitoring and highly trained nurses, arrhythmias could be identified and treated before becoming dangerous. The Brigham CCU soon became a model for other hospitals to follow.
Lown Cardiovascular Research Foundation
Dr. Lown founds the Lown Cardiovascular Research Foundation to promote cardiovascular health around the world through research, education, and global outreach.
The Foundation was renamed the Lown Institute in 2012 to acknowledge the broader spectrum of issues the foundation was addressing, including medical overuse and underuse, health equity, and cost of care.
International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW)
Dr. Lown and Soviet cardiologist Dr. Evgeni Chazov found the group International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW) to unite physicians around the world against nuclear proliferation.
“To me, healing means preventing disease, preventing suffering. And the quintessential evil, nuclear weapons, could only lead to unprecedented suffering.” – Bernard Lown
First IPPNW World Congress
Eighty medical leaders from twelve countries attend the first IPPNW World Congress.
“This was the greatest political issue of our time, because it didn’t just mean the death of an individual, but the death of multitudes. Why would doctors not get involved?” – Bernard Lown
Nobel Peace Prize
On the eve of Dr. Lown and Dr. Chazov’s acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize, a Russian journalist collapses from cardiac arrest at a press conference. Lown and Chazov help resuscitate the reporter and save his life.
“When crisis comes, Soviet and American cardiologists cooperate.” – Bernard Lown
IPPNW Co-Presidents Lown and Chazov meet with Mikhail Gorbachev and help persuade him to extend the Soviet Union’s unilateral moratorium on nuclear weapons testing.
Dr. Lown founds SATELLIFE, which used satellites to provide access to medical literature to health professionals in developing countries.
“Medical students in the global South now have medical libraries in their pockets.” – Bernard Lown
The Lost Art of Healing
Dr. Lown publishes The Lost Art of Healing, recounting how medicine strayed from its healing mission, and how we restore the fundamental human relationship between doctor and patient.
“The practice of medicine with a human face is possible in this age of personal involution into the black hole of me-ism. Indeed, it is more necessary than ever.” – Bernard Lown, The Lost Art of Healing
Dr. Lown founds ProCor, a global network promoting heart disease prevention in developing countries around the world.
Ad Hoc Committee to Defend Health Care
Dr. Lown organizes a campaign against the industrialization of medicine, demanding a stop to for-profit takeovers of healthcare services in Massachusetts. The campaign’s call to action denouncing market-driven health care and advocating access to care for all was signed by thousands of doctors and published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Their advocacy contributed to the adoption of Massachusetts’ health care reform bill expanding access to care, an early template for President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act.
“We are troubled by any organization that places an interface between the patient and the doctor.” – Bernard Lown
Prescription for Survival
Dr. Lown publishes Prescription for Survival, a memoir focused on his anti-nuclear proliferation activism.
“Events that took place behind the scenes a quarter of a century ago need to be understood. We continue to ignore history at our peril.” — Bernard Lown, Prescription for Survival
Bernard Lown Peace Bridge
Dedicated in Lewiston, Maine.
Avoiding Avoidable Care conference
The Lown Institute, along with the New America Foundation, organizes Avoiding Avoidable Care, the first conference in the world dedicated to the problem of overtreatment.
Dies in Newton, MA at age 99
Dr. Lown died on February 16, 2021. He is survived by his three children, five grand-children and great-grandchild.
Watch this documentary
Bernard Lown, inventive heart doctor and antiwar activist, dies at 99 – Robert D. McFadden, The New York Times
Nobel Peace Prize winner Bernard Lown dies – Lisa Mullins, WBUR
Bernard Lown, physician who rallied doctors against nuclear war, dies at 99 – Emily Langer, The Washington Post
Bernard Lown, groundbreaking cardiologist and influential antiwar activist, dies at 99 – Michael Walter, Cardiovascular Business
Dr. Bernard Lown, creator of 1st effective heart defibrillator, dies at 99 – Erica Carbajal, Becker’s Hospital Review
Dr. Bernard Lown was dedicated to peace, medical innovation and health equity – Bangor Daily News
A tribute to Bernard Lown – John Mandrola, Medscape
Remembering Bernard Lown: physician, activist, Nobel Peace Prize winner – Iona Heath, STAT
Bernard Lown: a principled life – Jeanne Lenzer, The BMJ
Renowned cardiologist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Bernard Lown dies at 99 – Alexandra Topic, The Harvard Crimson
Bernard Lown obituary – The Times
In memory of Bernard Lown – Michael Fine and David Bor, Medpage Today