What Dr. Lown teaches us about medicine and activism

This week, we are wishing a very happy birthday to Dr. Bernard Lown, who turned 99 on Sunday, June 7th! Although it may not seem like a good time for celebrating, perhaps this is the perfect time to reflect on Dr. Lown’s work connecting medical service to social activism, and understand how this applies today.

During a research career spanning more than 50 years, Dr. Lown considerably changed the practice of cardiology, by pioneering development of medical devices such as the direct current defibrillator and the cardioverter. He was a leader in researching the role of psychological factors in heart disease, and showing how listening to patients is integral to healing.

But Dr. Lown also took his work beyond the walls of hospitals and medical schools, leading countless struggles for justice, social equity, and peace, locally and globally. In the early 1960s he was a founder of Physicians for Social Responsibility, and in the eighties he co-founded International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW) with Dr. Yevgeny Chazov from the Soviet Union. This work came out of a desire to protect not just his patients, but everyone– a similar force that drives doctors to protest police violence today.

Although Dr. Lown and Dr. Chazov were eventually awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for their work, they encountered criticism from politicians for working across borders during the Cold War. In an interview on Boston Public Radio in 2008, Dr. Lown told a story that explains he kept fighting against nuclear proliferation despite the criticism:

“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.”

Our country is currently grappling with two public health crises: police brutality and the Covid-19 pandemic, both of which disproportionately affect black Americans. In response to the anti-racism protests sweeping the nation, more than 1000 health care professionals asserted in an open letter that “opposition to racism is vital to public health,” and that the pandemic should not be used as an excuse to try and shut down the protests.

“We believe that the way forward is not to suppress protests in the name of public health but to respond to protesters demands in the name of public health,” the authors wrote. “We can show support by facilitating safest protesting practices without detracting from demonstrators’ ability to gather and demand change.” 

“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.”

Dr. Bernard Lown

Health professionals are frustrated and dismayed to see their patients–and in some cases, their colleagues–being harmed by the police because of their race. One in every 1,000 African American men and boys can expect to be killed by police in their lifetime, making death by police violence a leading cause of death for young black men in America. Many health professionals know, as Dr. Lown knows, that being an advocate for patients means going beyond providing medical care, to addressing the factors outside of the hospital or clinic that contribute to peoples’ health. They also know that without a chance to live, no one has the chance to be healthy.

In his acceptance remarks upon receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in 1985, Dr. Lown said that before turning to other health care concerns “first we must be able to bequeath to our children the most fundamental of all rights, which preconditions all others: the right to survival.” Covid-19 and racism pose deadly threats to us all; it is imperative that we tackle them both.