Lessons from Lown: Crisis at the Nobel Prize conference

On December 9, 1985, Dr. Bernard Lown and Dr. Yevgeni Chazov were about to accept the Nobel Peace Prize for their work uniting doctors against nuclear war. Lown and Chazov had no idea they would also be called on to save a life that day.

The Bernard Lown Award for Social Responsibility

In honor of our late founder Dr. Bernard Lown, and because we need more clinicians like him, we created the Bernard Lown Award for Social Responsibility. The Bernard Lown Award will be given to a young clinician who exemplifies the courage and humanitarian spirit of Dr. Lown.

Watch the video footage

Watch this documentary excerpt to see how US and Russian doctors worked together to save the life of a journalist at the 1985 Nobel Prize conference. The story is narrated by Dr. John Pastore, Dr. Lown’s former colleague and fellow activist. The documentary was filmed and produced by Craig Atkinson and Ishita Gupta in 2011.

In Dr. Lown’s words

For more details on the story of the Nobel Prize press conference, we’ve included lightly-edited excerpts from Dr. Lown’s memoir, Prescription for Survival: A Doctor’s Journey to End Nuclear Madness.

The antagonistic press conference

Monday, December 9, was a bone-chilling day. The Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs arranged the press conference at the SAS Hotel in downtown Oslo. The room was overheated before we started, packed with more than two hundred journalists and physicians sitting and standing shoulder to shoulder. Chazov and I sat at a dais along with representatives of our global movement. 

When the press conference started, questions came in rapid succession. None were related to the nuclear arms race that threatened human existence. The questioners were working in unison and were focused on Soviet human rights abuses, Soviet psychiatry, and questions about the mistreatment of particular dissidents. We were now accustomed to being asked about everything but our work.

“None of the questions were related to the nuclear arms race that threatened human existence.”

We explained the need, despite vexing issues such as human rights, to work together with the Soviets to end the nuclear threat. We emphasized the importance of IPPNW as a single-issue organization and said that that if we had to resolve all other issues first, we would never have a dialogue on the nuclear threat.

It became evident that there was no interest in a reasoned exchange. Instead of presenting our case, we were shut out from the debate by venomous prosecutorial grilling that degenerated into shouted abuse.

A sudden cardiac arrest before our very eyes

About twenty minutes into the press conference, a man sitting on a small sofa to the left of the dias began to convulse, then slumped over unconscious…

At this press conference, we were discussing sudden nuclear death, which threatened millions. Before our very eyes was a sudden cardiac arrest about to end the life of a single human being. 

The entire hall was in an uproar as Chazov and I, joined by others, took turns in cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) until an emergency squad arrives with the appropriate medical equipment. The room was full of physicians. We worked as a team, rhythmically compressing the chest and providing mouth-to-mouth ventilation. We later learned the victim was a sixty-year-old Russian TV cinematographer.

“Before our very eyes was a sudden cardiac arrest about to end the life of a single human being.”  

After what seemed like an eternity, an ambulance crew with a defibrillator arrived. But several electrical discharges failed to restore a normal heart rhythm. It was increasingly unlikely that the patient would survive. Surveying the horrific scene, I was beset by a superstitious despair that his death would proclaim the futility of IPPNW’s quest… I was overwhelmed with desolation for the human condition. The Norwegian rescue team pronounced the patient dead and rolled the body out of the hall.

“The only thing that matters is saving a human life.”

The press conference reassembled. Certain that the Soviet journalist had died…I spoke slowly, as though I were participating in a séance intended to commune with dead souls. 

“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 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. 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.”

“We respond not as ideologues, nor as Russians, nor Americans, but as doctors.”  

As I was speaking, I was unaware that one more electrical shock had been administered and the victim’s heart had miraculously resumed regular beating. When we visited him in the hospital a day later, he was still in intensive care…but he was on the way to recovery.

The day after the incident, it seemed as though the whole world had been watching. The attitude toward us in the Norwegian media changed overnight. This one event accomplished what a torrent of words failed to do and provided an uplifting mood for the award ceremonies that soon followed. 

About the series

Dr. Bernard Lown (1921-2021) was a pioneering cardiologist, humanitarian, and founder of the Lown Institute. In honor of Dr. Lown, we are sharing stories from his remarkable life in his own words, through video and written content.