Dr. Bernard Lown

Dr. Bernard Lown was an internationally renowned cardiologist and peace activist who devoted his life to the practice of medicine in the field of cardiology, scientific research on causes of cardiovascular disease, and the betterment of humankind.  

Early life 

Dr. Lown was born in Utena, Lithuania in 1921, immigrating to the United States at 14 with his Jewish family to avoid Nazi persecution. As a student at the University of Maine, he graduated summa cum laude in spite of the antisemitic academic policies prevalent at the time. Dr. Lown continued his education studying cardiology at Johns Hopkins Medical School, where he was also a well-known activist. During a time in which blood donations were segregated at the school’s hospital, he regularly went against the discriminatory labeling process that separated “Colored” and “White” blood used for medical procedures. His brave approach saved countless lives but resulted in his temporary expulsion from the school.  

Upon graduating with his MD in 1945, he was drafted into the US Army. Although eligible to enter as a doctor, Dr. Lown forewent the benefits that came with this esteemed position after “refusing to sign a declaration that he had never joined a ‘subversive’ organization.” Instead, he served as a private, bearing the brunt of abuses by his superiors and service members with a remarkable spirit, eventually earning their respect and admiration. Yet Dr. Lown still faced difficulties finding a medical position upon discharge due to his sympathy toward social causes vilified during McCarthyism. He began working at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital as a cardiologist under his mentor, Dr. Samuel Levine.  

Medical advances in cardiology and healthcare 

Dr. Lown’s sense of moral urgency to remedy the world’s wrongs continued to influence his work as a cardiologist. His initial research focused on understanding the causes of sudden cardiac death, one of the most common causes of death in the United States at the time. Many of his ideas were initially met with hostility and considered radical, yet his published works were later heralded as medical breakthroughs.  

  • The Levine Chair Experiment: For myocardial infarction patients, Dr. Lown proposed substituting weeks-long complete bed rest with more active, upright position. This saved countless lives due to reduced risk of pulmonary embolism. 
  • Drug treatments: Dr. Lown pioneered the preventative usage of lidocaine to treat arrhythmias and demonstrated the link between digitalis toxicity and hypokalemia. He also discovered that prevalent dialysis formulation resulted in mortally low serum potassium, even for those without major cardiac issues, demonstrating the importance of potassium levels in cardiac health. 
  • DC defibrillator: Working with electrical engineer Baruch Berkowitz, Dr. Lown developed the Direct Current (DC) defibrillator technology, also known as the cardioverter, which is still used. He refused to take a patent for his invention which made the device available to millions of patients worldwide, saving hundreds of thousands of lives, including his own. 
  • Psychological stress: Dr. Lown’s research on the influence of stress on cardiac rhythm and sudden death illuminated the role of psychological factors on cardiovascular health, paving the way for future studies on the relationship between mind and body. 
  • Coronary care units: The first coronary care unit was established by Dr. Lown and his colleagues at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital in 1964, serving as a model for similar treatment centers focused on cardiac treatment and rehabilitation. 

Dr. Lown’s impact on public health extends far beyond the field of medical innovation. Throughout his career, he urged against overtreatment and unnecessary medical interventions, instead encouraging fellow physicians to see listening attentively to their patient as their most valuable tool. 

Dr. Lown was dedicated to the creation of a global network of cardiologists to identify and share best practices of prevention and treatment irrespective of factors such as ideology, nationality, or ethnicity. For five decades, he invited young physicians and scholars from low- and middle-income countries to Harvard and trained them in cardiology, which became the foundation for the Lown Scholars Program at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. During his experiments and in between medical breakthroughs, Dr. Lown continued to serve those in the local community as a cardiologist, establishing the Lown Cardiovascular Center where he treated patients until his mid-eighties.

Activism on moral issues 

In both his personal and professional life, Dr. Lown remained committed to fighting against acts of injustice and for the betterment of humanity. He was deeply impacted by Nobel Peace Prize winner Philip Noel-Baker’s campaigns on disarmament. He became an advocate for the prevention of nuclear war, founding Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR) in 1961. Based originally in Boston, PSR grew to be a nationwide organization supported by thousands of American medical professionals motivated to educate about, and prevent, the potential for global nuclear devastation that persists even to this day. In the midst of the Vietnam War in 1966, Dr. Lown helped to found the Committee of Responsibility (COR) to Save War-Burned and War-Injured Vietnamese Children, an organization which worked to transport and provide US-based care for almost one hundred children injured in the Vietnam War.  

As the Cold War progressed, Dr. Lown bridged the gaps between physicians around the world working to end the nuclear arms race, forming the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW) with Soviet cardiologist Dr. Yevgeniy Chazov in 1980. Five years later, when the organization had mobilized 135,000 physicians in more than 40 countries and was considered a massive force supporting the nuclear disarmament cause, Drs. Lown and Chazov accepted the Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of the organization. At the award ceremony, the two cardiologists were able to save the life of Lev Novikov, a Soviet journalist suffering a heart attack in the front row of the audience.  

In the mid-1980s, Dr. Lown also established SatelLife, creating a “satellite-based global health communications system as a means of demonstrating that space can unite rather than further divide humankind.” With SatelLife, medical students and professionals in developing countries were able to access literature, documentation, and peer knowledge for their work as well as resources such as computer literacy training. He then established ProCor, creating an international digital network of cardiology and public health communications to assist colleagues in developing countries to access the latest medical knowledge, especially in cardiology and public health. 

Throughout his medical career, Dr. Lown strongly advocated for single-payer healthcare. Though elements of this system came to fruition in the form of Massachusetts’s 2006 health care reform, the results still left much to be desired. Thus, the Lown Institute, a nonpartisan think tank, has been working toward a more equitable US health care system, including universal health care, alongside the Right Care Alliance, which stemmed from the Lown Institute and advocates for health system accountability and accessibility.  

Dr. Lown continued his research and education until his retirement from Harvard Chan School in 2000 as an emeritus professor. Despite his retirement, he continued to be vocal in the fight for disarmament, against the climate crisis, and for a more equitable global society. He remained actively involved in helping Harvard Chan School achieve its mission in the US and abroad, specifically by making an endowment to the School to establish the Bernard Lown Cardiovascular Scholars Program in 2008. He shared his experience and his vision for medicine and for a nuclear-weapon-free world in his two major books, The Lost Art of Healing and Prescription for Survival: A Doctor’s Journey to End Nuclear Madness. He passed away on February 16, 2021 at his home in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts at the age of 99.  

Belief in What’s Possible, Action for What’s Right: Honoring Dr. Bernard Lown

On Wednesday, April 7, 2021, colleagues and friends gathered to honor Dr. Lown in a virtual ceremony. View the event recording.

Visionary cardiologist, activist, inventor, teacher, and humanitarian—Dr. Bernard Lown saved lives on a global scale for nearly a century. With a prescient and unwavering belief in what’s possible and the courage to act for what’s right, his legacy is amplified by the community of Harvard Chan School Lown Scholars working throughout the developing world to promote cardiovascular health. Michelle A. Williams, ScD, Dean of the Faculty, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and Angelopolous Professor in Public Health and International Development, Harvard Kennedy School and Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health provided opening and closing statements honoring Dr. Lown and his legacy. The event included a number of tributes from Dr. Lown’s colleagues, including:

  • Oladimeji Akeem Bolarinwa, MB:BS, MPH, FWACP, PhD: Associate Professor and Public Health Physician, Department of Epidemiology and Community Health, University of Ilorin, Nigeria; Lown Scholar, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health
  • Joseph Brain, SM, SD: Cecil K. and Philip Drinker Professor of Environmental Physiology, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health
  • Vilma Irazola, MD, MPH, PhD: Director, Department of Chronic Diseases, Institute for Clinical Effectiveness and Health Policy (IECS), Argentina; Lown Scholar, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health
  • Devaki Nambiar, PhD: Program Head, Health Systems and Equity, George Institute for Global Health; Lown Scholar, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health
  • Ramfis Nieto-Martinez, MD, MSc: Director of Cardiometabolic Health and Lifestyle Unit, LifeDoc Health; Lown Scholar, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health
  • Jon Rohde, MD: Senior Lown Scholar and Bernard Lown Visiting Professor Emeritus, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health
  • Belgin Unal, MPH, PhD: Professor of Public Health, Dokuz Eylul University (DEU), Turkey; Lown Scholar, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health

This event also featured musical performances by Lisa M. Wong, MD, and Mr. Lynn Chang.