Amid fears about the devastation the Cold War nuclear arms race could bring, Dr. Herbert L. Abrams became the founding vice president of the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, a group he and a handful of Harvard doctors launched in 1980.
In influential articles and essays that were as stark and alarming as they were scientifically rigorous, he detailed the diseases and infections US survivors of a nuclear war could face after tens of millions died in the initial blasts. The nuclear disarmament efforts of Dr. Abrams, his colleagues, and physicians from the Soviet Union who joined them brought the group the Nobel Peace Prize in 1985.
“We hear talk that nuclear war is winnable, but we know that there is nothing but mutual suicide in a massive nuclear war,” Dr. Abrams, who died Jan. 20 at 95, wrote in “The Fire Next Time,” a 1982 article for The Rotarian magazine that was adapted from a speech he had delivered. “We hear that nuclear war is survivable, yet we know that the living may envy the dead.”
A world-renowned radiologist when the organization formed, Dr. Abrams “realized the enormous impact doctors can have when they step out of their field not for self-interest, but for the social good,” said Dr. Bernard Lown, founding president of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, or IPPNW.
When they started the group, Dr. Abrams was chief radiologist at what are now the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Brigham and Women’s Hospital and chairman of radiology at Harvard Medical School – positions that provided clout as he and his colleagues recruited physicians nationally and internationally to join their organization.
“Herb was key to bringing in not only other department chairs at Harvard Medical School, but department chairs from around the country,” said Dr. Eric Chivian, who cofounded IPPNW with Lown, Dr. Abrams, and Dr. James Muller.
Dr. Abrams, who died in his Palo Alto, Calif., home of complications from a stroke, wrote several books and nearly 200 articles about cardiovascular disease and health policy. A 1961 book he wrote about angiography has been republished in subsequent editions as “Abrams’ Angiography: Interventional Radiology.” His work in the field brought him the 1984 Gold Medal Award from the Association of University Radiologists and the 2000 Gold Medal Award from the Society of Interventional Radiology.
Along with being a leading international voice on the health risks of radiation from bombs, Dr. Abrams wrote forcefully that international leaders shirked their duty to be forthright about the dangers of nuclear war. “A medical analogy can be drawn between the doctrine of informed consent and the conduct of the superpowers, for surely governments have the same responsibility to populations as physicians have to individuals,” he wrote in the journal Preventive Medicine.
In that 1987 article, “The Problem of Accidental or Inadvertent Nuclear War,” Dr. Abrams took a scientific approach to examining how the “law of cumulative probability illustrates that we are living with a finite probability of nuclear conflict – accidental or otherwise,” listing point-by-point what previously had gone wrong and the potential for future peril.
“He was the first person to write a great detail about that,” said Chivian, who is a founder and former director of the Center for Health and the Global Environment at Harvard Medical School.
Dr. Abrams ended the article with a “Ten Commandments for the Nuclear Age,” which included admonitions that “Though shalt not demonize thine adversaries” and “Thou shalt not indulge in ‘macho’ or inflammatory rhetoric; neither the United States nor the Soviet Union needs to prove its manhood any longer.”
Hebert Leroy Abrams was one of three children born to Morris Abrams and the former Freda Sugarman, Russian immigrants who lived in Brooklyn, N.Y., and ran a wholesale hardware business.
He graduated from Cornell University with a bachelor’s degree and then from Long Island College of Medicine. In 1943, he married Marilyn Spitz.
“He was passionate, he was dedicated, he was fun, and he made everybody feel a little bit better,” said his son, John of West Tisbury, who added that Dr. Abrams “was a great father. He was as committed to his family as he was to his work.”
Drawn to the field of radiological imaging, Dr. Abrams set aside an initial interest in becoming a psychiatrist and moved with his family to California. He finished a radiology residency and began teaching at Stanford University School of Medicine, where he became director of diagnostic radiology.
In 1967, Dr. Abrams joined the Harvard Medical School faculty. A little more than a decade after that, at the end of the 1970s, Chivian and several others decided to reinvigorate the group Physicians for Social Responsibility, which had formed in 1961 and in later years had been less active. That group took out a full-page ad in the New England Journal of Medicine to warn about the dangers of nuclear power, which was published March 29, 1979 – the day after the partial meltdown at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in Pennsylvania. By virtue of his last name, which appeared atop the alphabetical listing, Dr. Abrams was the first physician among those who signed the ad.
That summer, Lown hosted physicians at his Newton home “on a sweltering July day” to discuss the next step toward what became International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War. He thought Dr. Abrams would be at his Martha’s Vineyard vacation home. Instead, Lown answered a knock at his front door to find Dr. Abrams, who quipped, “You didn’t think I’d miss this.”
Dr. Abrams “had a sharp wit,” recalled Lown, who added that his former colleague “didn’t tolerate indifference. He was forthright.”
Chivian added that Dr. Abrams “was a very soft-spoken, very humble, understated kind of guy. That was not a common species at the medical school.”
In 1985, Dr. Abrams returned to Stanford, where he was a radiology professor, a senior fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, and a faculty member affiliated with Stanford’s Center for International Security and Cooperation.
During his later career, he examined the impact of disability on presidential decision-making with his 1992 book “The President Has Been Shot: Confusion, Disability, and the 25th Amendment in the Aftermath of the Attempted Assassination of Ronald Reagan.”
In a tribute, John Abrams wrote that his father emphasized in his career “what he called the ‘four dimensions of bio-medicine’ – patient care, research, teaching, and advocacy.”
In addition to his wife and son, Dr. Abrams leaves a daughter, Nancy of Lincoln; three grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.
A gathering to celebrate the life and career of Dr. Abrams will be held at the Stanford campus on March 19.
For more than 40 years, Dr. Abrams spent summers on Martha’s Vineyard, and he celebrated his 95th birthday last summer at his Chilmark house, where four generations of his family played tennis. He played his last match about a month before he died.
His legacy of warning the world about the dangers of nuclear war “lives on,” Lown said, “and requires a new generation of doctors like Herb and the others to fight this important battle.”Bryan Marquard can be reached at email@example.com.