Bernard Lown came to America from Lithuania with his family when he was 14. He completed his M.D. degree from Johns Hopkins University and specialized in cardiology. His specific focus was sudden cardiac death. Dr. Lown felt that patients could be resuscitated and live normal lives.
Dr. Lown became known for a number of medical advances for cardiac treatment. Many of these went against standard medical practices at the time and were resisted by the medical community. Today these practices are standards of medical care for heart patients. Perhaps the best known is the direct current defibrillator.
If medical innovations alone were the mark of his career, Dr. Lown would be one of the greatest physicians of his time. But Dr. Lown is just as renowned for his work in developing networks of medical professionals who are concerned about the social responsibility of their profession.
He brought together fellow physicians to create Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR). They focused on the medical consequences of nuclear attack, a subject that physicians had not addressed. Their work was instrumental in the passage of the Limited Test Ban Treaty.
He was also involved in creating COR, a group organized to save burned and injured children in Vietnam. He helped encourage U.S. hospitals to treat those children for free. He also worked to secure flights to the U.S. from the U.S. Defense Department.
Continuing his work on the medical consequences of nuclear war, Dr. Lown and a Russian colleague formed the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW). This grew from 80 members to 135,000 in just four years. IPPNW was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1985.
Another of Dr. Lown’s efforts was focused on providing access to the latest medical care information in developing countries. He also led the advocacy for a single payer healthcare system in Massachusetts.
Dr. Lown became an icon for physician social responsibility. The physicians who became more socially aware and involved through the organizations championed by Dr. Lown are astounding. What Dr. Lown did was to make medical professionals aware that they have responsibilities beyond their income generating activities. They have societal responsibilities as well. Perhaps the most visible example of the acceptance of those responsibilities are the thousands of medical professionals who volunteered to give Covid-19 vaccinations.
All of us have societal responsibilities along with our responsibilities to our families. These don’t have to be on the grand scale of Dr. Lown. They can be simple gifts of our time to others in need. They can involve being a role model of citizenship. There are endless possibilities.
Just imagine a world populated with Dr. Lowns in every profession? Just imagine how we might incorporate social responsibility into every field of study? Just imagine creating a society where the true influencers are people like Dr. Lown?
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“I am of the opinion that my life belongs to the whole community and as long as I live, it is my privilege to do whatever I can.”
– George Bernard Shaw (Playwright, Critic, Activist)