Renowned radiologist Herbert Leroy Abrams, who co-founded the Nobel Prize-winning organization International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, died Jan. 20 at his Palo Alto home. He was 95.
Abrams was a professor emeritus of radiology at Stanford University, a senior fellow at Stanford’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, and an affiliated faculty member at the Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC).
Abrams’ illustrious, multi-faceted career embraced what he called the “four dimensions of bio-medicine” – patient care, research, teaching and advocacy.
Former U.S. Secretary of Defense and CISAC colleague William J. Perry praised Abrams for his “wisdom and carefully chosen words” in his advocacy for better control of nuclear weapons.
“The forces maintaining nuclear weapons and creating the danger that we might use them are very powerful and very hard to stop, and Herb and the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War were an early voice of sanity in this field, ” Perry said.
Toward the end of the Boston years, in the early eighties, Abrams developed a keen interest in the effects of ionizing radiation and nuclear weapons and the problems of accidental or inadvertent nuclear war, which led to the next phase of his career as an anti-nuclear activist.
“He leveraged his training in radiology to become one of the leading experts on the health effects of low-dose radiation,” said David Relman, professor of medicine at Stanford and current co-director of CISAC.
“It’s a problem that doesn’t get as much attention as the catastrophic effects of a nuclear blast, but the long-term consequences of low-dose radiation was something that Herb … helped promote as a serious issue, worthy of attention and study,” Relman added.
Abrams discussed the threats posed by radiation in a story published in the Spring 1986 issue of Stanford Medicine magazine. He said that, for physicians, nuclear weapons and nuclear war were “the central health issue of the 20th century.”
“We need to educate not only our colleagues and our students, but our constituents – the patients – and ultimately policymakers about the consequences of nuclear war,” Abrams said in the article. “Medical students are seldom taught about the effects of radiation. It’s important because there have been radiation disasters unrelated to nuclear weapons, and there will be more in the future.”
He was founding vice president of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW), which won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1985, just five years after the organization was established. He also served for many years on the national board of directors and as national co-chair of Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR), a U.S. affiliate of IPPNW.
“His contributions were huge,” said Scott Sagan, professor of political science at Stanford. Sagan added that under Abrams’ leadership the IPPNW “did yeoman’s work to try to educate the public and world leaders about the consequences of nuclear war at a time when many, including some in the Reagan administration, were minimizing the consequences of nuclear weapons use.”