According to the NY Times (Feb 16, 2021), ‘Dr. Bernard Lown, the Harvard cardiologist who invented the first effective heart defibrillator and was one of a group of co-founders of an international organization that won the 1985 Nobel Peace Prize for its campaign against nuclear war, died on Tuesday at his home in Chestnut Hill, Mass.’
It was only in 1962 that Dr Lown developed the modern day direct-current defibrillator (or cardioverter, as he called it) to correct fibrillations which were responsible for 40% of the half a million fatal heart attacks in the US annually.
His obituary in The Washington Post (Feb 18, 2021) read: ‘Dr. Lown helped demonstrate the utility of the drug lidocaine for cardiac patients and showed that nitrous oxide — popularly known as laughing gas — could be used to relieve pain caused by heart attacks and improve outcomes by lessening a patient’s anxiety and therefore his or her heart rate and blood pressure.’
Yet, Dr Lown saw a paradox in saving victims of sudden cardiac arrest. “Look, here’s the problem,” Dr. Lown recalled writing to Yevgeniy Chazov, a Soviet cardiologist he knew, in the late 1970s. “You and I have been concerned with the issue of sudden death. Sudden cardiac death is not what’s threatening us, but sudden nuclear death. You and I have got to get together.”
This exchange led to the formation of the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War attracting 135,000 members globally, including in the Soviet Union. In 1985, the group won the Nobel Peace Prize for having “performed a considerable service to mankind by spreading authoritative information and by creating an awareness of the catastrophic consequences of atomic warfare.”
In accepting this honour, Dr Lown said: “We are both cardiologists and usually speak about the heart. Today, we speak from the heart.”
Dr. Lown, second from right, with U.S. and Soviet colleagues at the 1985 Nobel Peace Prize events. (International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War)
While the threat of nuclear war may have diminished, not so the threat of sudden cardiac arrest.
Thanks to Dr Lown, we have available defibrillators to increase our chances of survival from less than 5% to over 65% when used with effective CPR.
All organisations, sites and dwellings owe a moral duty of care to the community to have a defibrillator on hand should an incident occur.
Dr Lown’s invention almost 60 years ago has saved hundreds of thousands of lives – a proud epitaph to a great physician and passionate humanitarian. RIP.