Next Generation is a Brigham Clinical & Research News column penned by students, residents, fellows and postdocs. If you are a Brigham trainee interested in contributing a column, email us. This month’s column is written by Joseph G. Hodgkin, MD, a second-year Internal Medicine resident.
On Feb. 15, 2003, in what would turn out to be one of the largest protests in human history, more than 6 million people around the world gathered in opposition to U.S. preparations for an invasion of Iraq. I joined the crowd protesting in Boston that day, alongside my family and friends. I was 13 years old. We assembled on Boston Common and marched through the downtown streets. Although the protests were not enough to stop the invasion, I realized the importance of the voices that spoke out on that day to affirm that force should be used only as a last resort.
My interest in peace comes from the work of women in my family going back more than a century. Devastated by the loss of their brothers in World War I, women on both the English Quaker and the German Jewish sides of my family independently engaged in activist work supporting the newly formed League of Nations. A generation later, my English great-grandmother used her platform as a prominent chemist to speak out against nuclear weapons. Growing up, I learned of the devastation of war from the resilience of my grandmother, who had escaped from Germany.
Many years after the protest on Boston Common, encouraged by the strong culture of social justice and physician advocacy I witnessed while studying at Boston University School of Medicine, I re-engaged with the peace movement by joining the greater Boston chapter of Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR). PSR is a national organization that, with its international affiliate International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW), won the 1985 Nobel Peace Prize for its key role in the Nuclear Freeze movement. PSR had led a massive grassroots campaign against the escalating arms race of the 1980s, which was ultimately successful in leading the Reagan administration to reverse its policies and return to the negotiating table with the Soviet Union.
Leaders of the Movement
Many of the leaders of that movement were Brigham cardiologists, including Bernard Lown, MD, and James Muller, MD, who built connections with Soviet physicians to form IPPNW. Together with health workers and concerned citizens from 64 countries, they worked toward the common goal of creating a more peaceful and secure world free of the threat of nuclear annihilation.
Dr. Muller had learned Russian as a student, and put it to use in his work. In 1982, he spoke of the need for negotiation and disarmament on Soviet television to an audience of 200 million viewers. Analysis of the public health effects of nuclear war had shown that there was no effective emergency medical response to the use of nuclear weapons — in fact, their use would potentially make Earth uninhabitable — and that it was therefore the responsibility of physicians to advocate for de-escalation and disarmament.
I met Dr. Muller in the fall of my intern year when I spoke at a PSR/IPPNW event at Countway Library. Since then, we have met regularly to discuss advocacy strategies and trade book recommendations during the lunch hour before his clinic, and in the middle of my inpatient rotations.
I am grateful for the support and encouragement I have received from Brigham and Women’s Hospital in pursuing this work. Advised by Dr. Muller, as well as Cheryl Clark, MD, ScD, and Morgan Esperance, MD, from the newly formed Leadership in Health Equity Track within the Internal Medicine Residency Program, I am working to develop an educational resource that can expose medical professionals to the enormous amount that we already know about the public health threat that nuclear weapons pose.
My educational work has been in parallel to policy advocacy with PSR. ‘Back from the Brink’ — a list of common-sense policy priorities regarding nuclear weapons — has been passed as legislation in many towns and cities across the country, as well as state legislatures in California, Maine, New Jersey and Oregon. I have visited lawmakers in the Massachusetts State House with my colleagues several times to educate them about this issue, and have testified in support of related legislation.
The Brigham has been at the forefront of this crucial work in the past, when the leaders of this movement included many Brigham cardiologists. As physicians, we spend our days working to prevent adverse events like heart attacks that are infrequent but devastating. Nuclear war threatens the world in the same way that a major cardiac event threatens a patient — unless we take steps to prevent it, the risk of catastrophe rises with time’s passage. Today, when the last nuclear arms control treaties are expiring with no plans for renewal, and the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists warns that we are closer to nuclear disaster than we were in the 1980s, we have an opportunity to continue our legacy of the pursuit of peace.