The Scalpel or the Sword: Physicians in the Peace Movement

By Dr. Dale Dewar | 2011-01-01 12:00:00

Physicians have always had a important role to play in war—fixing the wounded and preparing them to return to battle or go home. In the twentieth century, two new roles emerged. The more sinister medical-led human experimentation was carried to the extreme under Nazi Germany but has continued with torture in Guantánamo (and probably elsewhere), using knowledge about the limits of human physical and psychological endurance. Such complicity with military action has been relatively recent.

Since Dr. Rudolf Virchow wrote in the 1880s of the contradictions between the roles of a physician during war—to heal and then send out to kill—a growing number of physicians have opposed war and the wasteful expenditures on armaments. Some of them have formed professional organizations to address those issues. I’ll describe that movement here.

Dr. Joseph Rivière founded the International Medical Association against War in 1905. Disillusionment and world wars shredded this early attempt, but in 1951 in the UK and Australia, the Medical Association for the Prevention of War (MAPW) was founded. Through conferences and bulletins, the organization gradually gained international attention. In 1984, its Proceedings of the Medical Association for the Prevention of War was renamed Medicine and War.

In the United States, Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR) was launched in 1961. Along with other civil society organizations, it created public pressure which led to the Limited Test Ban Treaty in 1963. Among its founders was the energetic and charismatic Dr. Helen Caldicott. In 1964, Dr. Victor Sidel representated PSR at a conference sponsored by MAPW in Oxford.

International Physicians for Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW) had its beginnings at the Fifth International Convention of Cardiology in New Delhi, India, when Dr. Bernard Lown entered an elevator and recognized a Russian colleague, Dr. Yevgeny Chazov. Lown knew that Chazov, as the personal physician of a succession of top party leaders, was in a uniquely influential position. It was in 1966 that the United States and Russia were in the midst of the Cold War—suspicious and fearful of one another. The two cardiologists entered an often frustrating but dynamic relationship that spanned the Atlantic.

In 1980, the founding meeting of IPPNW was held in Dr. Lown’s living room. The movement grew rapidly, with thousands of physicians around the world joining and meeting each other in huge international conventions. Together, Dr. Chazov and Dr. Lown traveled through Russia and the United States, lecturing in public meetings and on television about the dangers of nuclear weapons. Only five years later, in 1985, they represented the organization as it was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize. Animosity between their two countries was still so great that the US and some European countries boycotted the ceremony. Nevertheless, the Cold War proved to be irrelevant when a dignitary in the front row collapsed with cardiac arrest and the two cardiologists jointly resuscitated him.

IPPNW quickly found national affiliates forming in many countries, including Canada, where Dr. Frank Sommers organized a Canadian version of Physicians for Social Responsibility in 1980. By1982, the group had a formal board structure with Sommers as president. In 1984, PSR Canada became Canadian Physicians for Prevention of Nuclear War and, at the same time, acquired charitable status.

Caldicott’s speaking tour in 1981 had brought out many Canadian physicians. If You Love This Planet, a Canadian National Film Board production, was based on her tour. It won an Academy Award for documentary short subject in 1982, even though it was designated “foreign political propaganda” by the US Department of Justice and was suppressed in that country. (Its first screening in the UK reportedly did not occur until April 2008! It is still available through and still pertinent.)

In 1986 the IPPNW World Congress was held in Montreal, only months after the organization had won the Nobel Peace Prize. The meeting was crowded with happy attendees, both physician and non-physician. IPPNW continued to grow and today claims more than 160,000 members in 60 countries around the world.

The Medical Association for the Prevention of War (MAPW) in the UK merged with the Medical Campaign Against Nuclear Weapons in 1992 to form Medact, though in Australia it remained MAPW. In 1994, concern for social justice and the environment (chiefly pollution and global warming) led Canadian Physicians for Prevention of Nuclear War to change its name to a broader title: Physicians for Global Survival.

Projects and Campaigns

The name change did not diminish the organization’s commitment to ending nuclear weapons. One of the earliest projects in which it participated in 1982 was to support “Mayors for Peace,” a campaign currently headed by the Tadatoshi Akiba, the mayor of Hiroshima. Today the organization has 4,301 member cities from 149 countries and regions, including 51% of the capital cities in the 192 United Nations member states. Everywhere, towns and villages have signed the Cities Are Not Targets (CANT) declaration. For the Canadian members, a particular highlight came in 2006 when the Federation of Canadian Municipalities stated that their organization “expresses its unqualified support for the World Conference of Mayors for Peace, which is advocating the abolition of nuclear weapons.”

The Project X Campaign, originally led by students, has literally been “rolled out” in cities around the world. Rolling out a large red “X” onto the sidewalk or a city park, students and physicians engage pedestrians in discussions about the effects of a nuclear bomb dropping on that very site. They show shocking graphs with data from an analysis called “One Bomb over a City,” prepared by Dr. Alan Phillips in 1992.

The development of “Peaceful Childhoods” literature under the direction of Dr. Joanna Santa Barbara was supported by the Jennifer Simons Foundation. It remains one of PGS’s most frequently requested packages of information. Dr. Santa Barbara was able to introduce some of the material from this project into a curriculum for children in Afghanistan.

As part of its educational work Physicians for Global Survival has convened a series of workshops and continuing medical education forums with names like “Healing Our Planet: A Global Prescription” in 1987; “Think Globally, Act Locally” in 1989; “Children in War Zones” in 1992; “War as Disease” at the World Peace Forum in Vancouver in 2006; “Prescriptions for Survival: the Physician and the Global Village” in 2007; “Nuclear Pros and Cons: Medical Isotopes to Nuclear Bombs”; “The Time is Now: Healing the Planet: Creating a Peaceful and Sustainable Future” in 2009; “Global Health and Human Rights,” and “The Heat is On: Hot Planet/Cold Wars” in 2010.


Physicians for Global Survival remains a charitable organization headed by physicians, engaging in research, education, and health promotion. It is devoted to issues that challenge the survival of humankind and the environment. Poverty has been identified as a public health issue, so the web of inter-connected issues has grown to include social and economic justice.

From its inception, the organization has recognized that war and violence are public health problems. Just as violence on an individual level injures the person, the relationship, and the perpetrator, violence between nations injures their populations, diverts energy from maintaining their health, requires years to recover the infrastructure, and scars both people and landscapes. Health care is impaired whenever resources are diverted to a war effort, whether defensive or offensive. PGS recognizes that the only solution lies in prevention of war.

The threat of nuclear war is still present and particularly onerous. There remain over 20,000 Russian and American nuclear weapons, about 5000 of them on “high alert.” False alarms have occurred, narrowly aborting deployment on several occasions. During the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, one of the Cuban doctors studying in Russia was told to remain in Russia “if Cuba disappeared.” In the 1990s, Russia almost initiated attack mode when its radar falsely identified a Scandanavian weather probe as an incoming missile.

Today, while not limiting its concerns to nuclear weapons, Physicians for Global Survival has joined a focused campaign called ICAN—International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (—as one of the its priorities. That organization has been meeting with parliamentarians; participating in campaigns by like-minded organizations such as Ploughshares and Pugwash; cooperating with its colleagues in the United States, Australia, the UK and elsewhere through International Physicians for Prevention of Nuclear War; speaking to the public and other physicians about the risks of nuclear war; and writing letters and submissions to digital and print media. The ICAN campaign has been endorsed by Ban Ki Moon, Secretary-General of the United Nations. The final document of the Non Proliferation Treaty talks in May 2010 recognized the importance of a Nuclear Weapons Convention, a treaty to abolish nuclear weapons forever.

Appendix: List of Campaigns

Here are some campaigns in which PGS has participated or supported. It summarizes the history of the peace movement in Canada: many of these programs and organizations are still current, and most involve educating the public and health professionals.

Dr. Dale Dewar is Executive Director, Physicians for Global Survival. To find out more about PGS, go to

Peace Magazine Jan-Mar 2011

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