- Dec. 28, 2020
Dr. H. Jack Geiger, who ran away to Harlem as a teenager and emerged a lifelong civil rights activist, helping to bring medical care and services to impoverished regions and to start two antiwar doctors groups that shared in Nobel Peace Prizes, died on Monday at his home in Brooklyn. He was 95.
Dr. Geiger was a leading proponent of “social medicine,” the idea that doctors should use their expertise and moral authority not just to treat illness but also to change the conditions that made people sick in the first place: poverty, hunger, discrimination, joblessness and lack of education.
“Jack redefined what it meant to be a physician,” said Dr. Irwin Redlener, the founding director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University and the co-founder of the Children’s Health Fund. He added, by email, “He felt it was our right and responsibility as doctors to ‘treat’ hunger, poverty and disparities in health care, as directly and openly as we treat pneumonia or appendicitis.”
The social order, not medical services, determines health, Dr. Geiger said in “Out in the Rural,” a short documentary film made in 1970 about the first community health center in Mississippi.
Dr. Geiger was a founding member of two advocacy groups, Physicians for Social Responsibility, which shared the 1985 Nobel Peace Prize for its efforts to end the nuclear arms race, and Physicians for Human Rights, which shared the 1997 prize for working to ban land mines.
He rallied doctors in the Cold War era to speak out against what he saw as a myth being promoted by the government, that nuclear war could be survivable. On the contrary, he insisted, hospitals would be quickly overwhelmed, and even victims with treatable injuries would perish.
Dr. Geiger helped found Physicians for Social Responsibility in 1961. The group argued that official predictions of the effects of nuclear war minimized the number of casualties and the extent of the destruction it would cause. At the group’s public meetings, Dr. Geiger’s job was “the bombing run” — offering a detailed account of what a one-megaton nuclear bomb would do to the city in which the meeting was being held.
Dr. Geiger was a co-author of one of the first articles to look at the medical costs of nuclear war. The article, in The New England Journal of Medicine, predicted the fate of Boston in a nuclear strike — 2 million dead, a half-million injured and fewer than 10,000 hospital beds left in the entire state of Massachusetts. Doctors must “explore a new area of preventive medicine, the prevention of thermonuclear war,” the article said.