Dr. Bernard Lown was a Jewish immigrant from Lithuania who invented the heart defibrillator, transforming the field of cardiology and saving countless lives. He was a passionate peace activist who won the Nobel Prize for co-founding Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War.
Born to an erudite Jewish family in Lithuania in 1921, Bernard and his father, a rabbi, emigrated to Maine soon after his bar mitzvah to escape Nazi persecution. He attended the University of Maine, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in zoology, and then went to medical school at Johns Hopkins. As someone who’d fled his country because of ethnic hatred, he was especially sensitive to racism, and caused controversy in medical school for inviting a black doctor to speak on public health issues in the African-American community. Bernard was briefly expelled from school for protesting the segregation of blood in the hospital’s blood bank.
After receiving his MD in 1945, Bernard married his cousin Louise Lown. Their marriage would last 73 years. He said, “When you ask about my heroes, clearly I have many – my wife Louise foremost.” In the 1950’s, Bernard became a physician and researcher at Harvard Medical School, specializing in cardiology. He also taught at the Harvard Chan School of Public Health, where he was among the first to emphasize the crucial role of nutrition in treating and preventing many illnesses including heart disease.
As a young cardiologist, Bernard’s mentor was Dr. Samuel Levine, who encouraged him to study the common practice of putting heart attack patients on bed rest for 4-6 weeks, which often led to pulmonary embolisms. In what became known as the “Levine Chair study,” Bernard found that having patients sit in a comfortable chair improved outcomes significantly. This simple discovery changed the standard of practice for heart patient care.
Bernard was determined to find a way to prevent the most common cause of death: cardiac arrest. After hearing about cases where patients were resuscitated with an AC electric shock, which was very dangerous, Bernard wanted to find a safer type of electric current. He worked with fellow Eastern European refugee Baruch Berkovitz, an electrical engineer, and after a year of intensive research, in 1961 Bernard developed a new defibrillator that used a DC current. It was so safe and effective that the DC defibrillator soon became the universally accepted treatment for cardiac arrest.
Bernard pioneered the use of the drug lidocaine to treat heart disorders. In 1965 at Brigham Hospital in Boston, Bernard organized one of the first coronary care units focused on the prevention of heart rhythm disorders. He proved that continuous EKG monitoring and well-trained nurses could identify arrhythmias early and save lives. Bernard founded the Lown Cardiovascular Research Foundation in 1973 to promote heart health through research and global education.
His research had an extraordinary impact on the practice of clinical medicine around the world. “The physician is not a glorified repairman of a broken-down machine; being treated is a human being with a mind and a soul.” He listened to his patients and considered them his partners in healing. Bernard wrote many bestselling books including “The Lost Art of Healing” and “Practicing the Art While Mastering the Science.”
In addition to his enormous contributions to the medical field, Bernard was a lifelong peace activist. He founded Physicians for Social Responsibility in 1961 because “you cannot be committed to health without being engaged in social struggle for health.” As the Vietnam War ramped up, Bernard organized the Committee of Responsibility to Save War Burned and War Injured Children, and brought about 100 seriously injured Vietnamese children to the United States for medical treatment.
In 1980 Bernard and Soviet cardiologist Dr. Eugene Chazov co-founded International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War. Bernard said, “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?” The doctors lobbied their countries for a moratorium on nuclear testing and building nuclear weapons, and held the first IPPNW World Congress, which attracted 80 medical leaders from twelve countries. In the next few years the group opened chapters in more than 60 countries and had over 200,000 physician members. For alerting people to the very real danger of nuclear war, IPPNW won the 1985 Nobel Peace Prize.
In his acceptance speech, “A Prescription for Hope,” Bernard said, “The ‘myth of the other,’ the stereotyping and demonizing of human beings beyond recognition, is still pervasive and now exacts inordinate economic, psychological and moral costs.” Incredibly, at the awards ceremony, a Russian journalist collapsed from cardiac arrest. Bernard and his Russian counterpart Dr. Chazov rushed to resuscitate the reporter and save his life. “When crisis comes, Soviet and American cardiologists cooperate,” Bernard said. His book “Prescription for Survival,” focusing on his anti-war activism, came out in 2008. That year, the Bernard Lown Peace Bridge was dedicated in Lewiston Maine.
Bernard was concerned about overtreating patients – ordering tests and procedures that often did more harm than good – and in 2012 he helped organize “Avoiding Avoidable Care,” the first global conference dedicated to the issue of overtreatment. He said, “Do as much as possible for the patient, and as little as possible to the patient.”
Dr. Bernard Lown died on February 16, 2021 at 99 years old. He is survived by three children, five grandchildren, and one great-grandchild. His wife Louise died in 2019.
For saving lives and creating peace, we honor Dr. Bernard Lown as this week’s Thursday Hero.
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