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The Road to Oslo

Attending a Lutheran college in a quiet Pennsylvania town turned the world upside down for the better. I learned about the obstinacy of Martin Luther facing a corrupt Catholic Church, and the Lutheran Raoul Wallenberg who saved thousands of Hungarian Jews from the Nazis. I began to gain a voice-on the stage and on the page, perfect antidotes for a child of a deaf mother. Medical school in Baltimore turned it upside down again. I was back in a dangerous Black neighborhood, but now with survival skills, and a chance to help ease the suffering around me. In med school focused on psychiatry but shifted to pediatrics when I began working with the most innocent and vulnerable of patients. When I told a psychiatric profI was leaving to work with kids, he said cheerfully, “No difference!” He was right. Pediatrics was seeing the damage in real time. Psychiatry was seeing damage from the past. The real time suffering of children was soul wrenching. I turned back to psychiatry with its low mortality rate, and the challenge of dealing with the most complicated topic in the universe, the human mind.

I began my psychiatric residency at Harvard (where napalm had been invented, and where John Kennedy had plucked “the best and brightest” only to give us the Vietnam War). The day that Nixon and Kissinger decided to carry the war into Cambodia, a resident stood up at grand rounds and voiced his outrage over the widened bombing of innocents. As if channeling Martin Luther himself, I found myself standing, too. We wrote a petition to demand a stop to the bombing. It was signed by more than a hundred of the faculty. The carpet bombing went on for two more years. In 1973 Nixon stopped the bombing, and Kissinger was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for stopping what he started.

The bombing of Cambodia claimed between 50,000 to 600,000 lives, but physicians had known a decade before that the death toll of a nuclear war would be in the hundreds of millions. The US and the Soviets had produced 40,000 warheads, with more bombs on the way. Detonating a fraction of those arsenals would be catastrophic, beyond the scope of the worst crimes of recorded history. The policy of Mutually Assured Destruction, also known as MAD, was in force between the US and the USSR. As a psychiatrist I knew crazy when I saw it. A core principle of public health, often overlooked in this time of Covid, is that if treatment of the victims of an epidemic is impossible, prevention is the only way forward. Nuclear war loomed as an epidemic in the making, our final one. I wasn’t alone in believing that. A dynamic group of other doctors came forward, including Helen Caldicott, Eric Chivian, and Ira Helfand, among others. Together in 1979 we resurrected a group, Physicians for Social Responsibility. The goal was simple if quixotic- to end the nuclear arms race.

I had a certain degree of notoriety as a writer following a run of two successful comedies and a pair of sitcoms. Although preventing a nuclear war wasn’t a sitcom, I was invited to co-author PSR’s By-Laws. No sooner had we set to work, as luck would have it, Reactor 2 at Three Mile Island exploded, casting a cloud of radioactivity over Pennsylvania and New England. Our telephone jumped off the desk with calls from doctors from all over the US wanting to help. PSR had come alive.

Chivian had the brilliant idea of holding a symposium at Harvard on nuclear power and nuclear war. Many of the physicians who had contributed to landmark papers in the New England Journal of Medicine a decade before came forward to participate. The press could not stay away. The symposium idea was replicated in cities across America, and then the world.I spoke countless times, in the U.S., Western and Eastern Europe, Asia, Australia, New Zealand, and Tasmania.



On Sunday December 6, 1981, I lay on my couch recovering from an exhausting series of meetings and lectures. Reading the New York Times’ page E7, I remarked about the iconic photograph there of Andrei Sakharov and his wife, Yelena Bonner, in exile for speaking out against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. I turned the page to E9, and to my surprise saw the above picture of my recent lecture at MIT. “Speaking of another iconic photograph...” I said and held it up for my wife to see. AnIPPNW cardiologist, John Pastore, later helped Bonner get treatment at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Boston, where we were on the staff.

Bernard Lown, one of the voices of PSR a decade earlier, was quick to capitalize on the growing anti-nuclear movement in the world. He had long had a professional relationship with Evgenii Chazov, the personal physician to Leonid Brezhnev, and in time persuaded Chazov to join in an international medical effort to prevent nuclear war. Once again, I was asked to write a constitution, this time for a worldwide organization, the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War. Once more we used the symposium as a way of reaching the media, citizens, and leaders around the world. The cardiologist Jim Muller and I negotiated the final draft of the organization’s constitution in the Hague with physician leaders from over forty countries. I helped conduct a symposium in Budapest in 1985. A few months later IPPNW was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

American physicians from PSR accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in 1985. From left to right: Thomas Chalmers, Professor of Medicine and developer of the randomized controlled clinical trial; Herbert Abrams, Professor and Chairman of Radiology at Harvard; an unidentified attendee; Edward Crispin, PSR, IPPNW activist in Canada; Victor Sidel, President of the American Public Health Association; Jennifer Leaning, ER physician and co-founder of PSR; me holding the Nobel Peace Prize medal, with the Nobel Diploma on the table; Sidney Alexander, President of PSR; H. Jack Geiger, pioneer in social medicine and co-founder of PSR; Christine Cassel, member of PSR’s Board of Directors; Richard Steinman, President of PSR/Philadelphia; Richard Saxon, President of PSR/Los Angeles; and David Greer, Dean of the Brown University School of Medicine.


Co-authors of the By-Laws for Physicians for Social Responsibility, Drs. Henry Abraham and Jennifer Leaning, with the Nobel certificate and medal.


Program of the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony, Oslo, 1985.


At the celebration in Oslo a Soviet reporter suffered a cardiac arrest. There was no shortage of doctors to do CPR.  The resuscitation team of Lev Novikov was clockwise from top: Dagmar Sørboe, Jim Muller, Jennifer Leaning, Bernard Lown, Sid Alexander, John Pastore, Yevgeniy Chazov performing chest compressions, on his left Marcia Goldberg operating the breathing bag, and Lars Engstedt behind them observing. The patient survived. Photo courtesy of Reuters.

The night before the award ceremony, a torchlight parade was planned. On the way to the march, not knowing my way around Oslo, I got lost, and then, as I reached the crest of a hill, I looked down into the valley and saw marchers from around the world marching towards me bearing what seemed an endless mass of lights. There seemed no better symbol of what my friends and I had been trying to do. 

What did we accomplish? Early in Ronald Reagan’s presidency, he denigrated the Soviets as the “Evil Empire,” and pushed the development of an anti-ballistic missile shield to protect the US from any missile attack. The latter caused consternation among the Soviets, who had agreed in 1972 not to build such a weapon, and in West Europe where it was feared Americans would force them to face the Soviets alone. Given Reagan’s previous life in Hollywood, it was only a matter of time that his program would be dubbed Star Wars.

As PSR built chapters in nearly every state, and as IPPNW united physician activists around the world, Reagan the politician sensed the pressure, and began to change his tune. “I’m for you!” he said enthusiastically. And judging from what followed between the US and the Soviets, he was. Certainly the antinuclear sympathies of Mikhail Gorbachev helped. In Reagan’s second term, the most extensive reduction of nuclear weapons began between the superpowers. The INF treaty removed nuclear weapons from Europe which, if launched, were so dangerous that it gave leaders only six minutes to decide whether to counterattack. Long range stockpiles began to be reduced as well, so that the peak strategic armamentaria of the two countries declined from 65,000 warheads in 1985 to a verifiable treaty maximum of 1,550 for each side in 2011.


Total number of nuclear warheads held by the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. from 1950 to 2010. Courtesy of Wiki Commons.

This was the work of many hands, and I believe the work of PSR and IPPNW helped. Dramatically lowering nuclear arsenals is important, but the evil genii can’t be put back into a bottle. There seems no easy way to stop their spread about the globe.

Worse, we’re facing a slow rolling degradation of the planet from a warming climate. If the world’s haphazard responses to the Covid epidemic is any indicator, the chances of a unified effort in the face of this latest existential threat to the human race look to be poor. But that was what our critics said, too, when doctors around the world united to speak out against nuclear weapons. By that measure, there is room for hope now.

What I Said in Norway


Nidaros Cathedral. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

The evening following the ceremony, I traveled to the lovely city of Trondheim on the invitation of the Norwegian Physicians for Social Responsibility to speak. The talk was preceded by a Lutheran service at the Nidaros Cathedral, now part of the Church of Norway. My first time in Trondheim, I had never seen the Cathedral, and even at night it took my breath away.

Though I had never seen such a church, the Lutheran service made me feel at home. When it ended, the people of Trondheim held a peace march to the Frimurarlogen (Masonic Lodge) where I spoke to an attentive crowd of several hundred.


The march and talk were covered by an article in the Arbeider-Avisa, December 14, 1985. The headline reads “Only trust can stop the madness.” Marchers carried a sign reading, “Peace Prize 85: Doctors against Nuclear War.” Many Norwegians speak English well, but the group opted to have the speech simultaneously translated from English into Norwegian. This meant that I had to give my speech in halting sentences to make it easier to translate, quite unsettling when I told a joke, waited for a minute for the translator to repeat it in Norwegian, and then heard the audience finally laugh. Here is what I said.

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