International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War

158 Longwood Avenue, The Fenway

For five days in March 1981, seventy-three physicians from the United States, Western Europe, and the Soviet Union met in Virginia, just outside Washington, D.C., to launch International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW). In the preceding year, a trio of physicians affiliated with Harvard Medical School had launched conversations with medical counterparts in the Soviet Union. Despite their professional credentials, they were acutely away of their relative marginality in the context of a growing U.S. military buildup, Cold War tensions, and the election to the U.S. presidency of Ronald Reagan, which promised even steeper military spending. In this context, Bernard Lown, a cardiologist, and his colleagues carefully crafted a message based on their competency as physicians: “we must stick unswervingly to the medical facts about nuclear war,” they stated.

Lown and his colleagues first met in Geneva with a group of Soviet medical practitioners in December 1980. After a difficult start, their deliberations concluded with a call for the 1981 meeting. Although intimidated by the prospects of organizing an international gathering in just three months, the doctors set up shop in the Longwood area of the Fenway, in a small, 2nd floor office above Sparr’s Drug, a provider of medical supplies and equipment and an old-style drugstore with soda fountains. There they turned to a volunteer corps of a dozen Harvard Medical School students and raised over $250,000 to pull off the Virginia conference. 

Sparr’s drug store, circa 1960-1969. Source: Northeastern University Library Archives and Special Collections.

The gathering ended with appeals to fellow physicians, leaders of the United Nations, and the Soviet and U.S. leaderships, each premised in the “abiding faith in the concept that what humanity creates, humanity can control.” Arguing against the Reagan Administration’s perspective, they stated the nuclear war was unwinnable and catastrophic, and further, that international cooperation was needed to reduce nuclear stockpiles. IPPNW’s influence continued to grow alongside that era’s burgeoning anti-nuclear movement. The organization won international recognition, including the Nobel Peace Prize in 1985.

International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War remains active. Its offices are now located at 339 Pleasant Street in Malden. Sparr’s Drug closed down in 2002. The Harvard School of Public Health currently owns the building.

Building that housed IPPNW and Sparr’s, Longwood and Huntington Avenues. Photo by Eleni Macrakis, 2018.

Getting there:

Green Line “E” to Longwood Station.

To learn more:

Bernard Lown, Prescription for Survival: A Doctor’s Journey to End Nuclear Madness. San Francisco: Berret-Koehler Publishers, Inc., 2008.

2 Replies to “International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *