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Passing the torch: Cardiologist prepares younger colleagues to confront nuclear threat

Dr. James Muller (left) ate lunch at Brigham and Women's Hospital with Noy Kauffman (center) and Dr. Joseph Hodgkin.
Dr. James Muller (left) ate lunch at Brigham and Women's Hospital with Noy Kauffman (center) and Dr. Joseph Hodgkin.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff/Globe staff

It’s lunch hour at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and the cafe is full of patients and white-coated staffers. At a corner table, Dr. James Muller huddles with junior colleagues discussing a peril that has long preoccupied him: the threat of nuclear war.

“We haven’t yet got the message out to the public,” said Muller, 76, a prominent cardiologist. “It’s a mystery why the presidential candidates are largely silent on this.”

As a young doctor, Muller pressed heads of state to halt weapons-building and spelled out the danger of nuclear arms on Soviet television. He cofounded the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War at the height of the Cold War. Its work earned him and his colleagues — American and Russian heart specialists — the 1985 Nobel Peace Prize for fueling “an awareness of the catastrophic consequences of atomic warfare,” in the words of the Nobel panel.

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Now, after a hiatus of more than three decades, Muller is back in the fray, warning a younger generation of doctors that he hopes will carry forward his antinuclear campaign. It’s part of a broader effort by a corps of aging physicians and their allies to share what they learned in an earlier era, when the danger of nuclear war was seen as paramount.

But Muller and his colleagues are discovering that the environment for activism has changed. The Internet has shortened attention spans and splintered audiences. Events including the Cuban missile crisis, and even the atom bombs dropped on Japan in World War II, have receded in history. And other looming threats, notably global warming and gun violence, weigh more heavily on young people.

“People in my generation are talking about climate change,” said Emily Anderson, 25, a Boston University medical student. “We’re seeing the effects, and it’s pretty scary. The nuclear issue’s slid under the radar. It’s something I don’t have the bandwidth for yet.”

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Joe Hodgkin, a 29-year-old internal medicine resident at the Brigham who Muller hopes might take up the antinuclear charge, admitted, “When I talk to some people my age, they see the threat of nuclear war as something that’s far away.”

That’s the challenge for Muller, who is in a hurry to convey the urgency of the threat.

“I’m trying to pass the torch,” he said. “Every future generation will have to deal with this problem. . . . I’m 76. The issue is dropping off of public concern. I have a limited amount of time to make sure the next generation can benefit from my failures and successes.”

When playing guitar and bantering with neighbors at the recent Newton Porchfest, the soft-spoken Muller seems like a man who would be content to spend his afternoons belting out Beatles songs on his porch with his wife, Kathleen, and their grown children. But he has long been drawn to social justice issues. He was founding president of Voice of the Faithful, the Catholic laity reform movement spawned by the clergy abuse crisis, after years of sounding the alarm on nuclear weapons.

Muller still vividly recalls the “duck-and-cover” air-raid drills at his grade school in Indianapolis early in the Cold War. After the Soviets launched the Sputnik satellite in 1957, his father advised him to learn Russian. He studied the language at Notre Dame and later as an exchange student in Moscow. In medical school at Johns Hopkins, a professor’s lecture jolted him into recognizing the threat of nuclear annihilation. He remembers staring out the window of his Baltimore dorm room imagining the devastation that could be unleashed.

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As part of the antinuclear physicians group, Muller reached out to Russian doctors. In one of its greatest successes, a team of American and Soviet physicians, led by Dr. Bernard Lown of Harvard and Dr. Yevgeny Chazov, personal physician to Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, were permitted to appear on Soviet television in 1982 to talk to an estimated 200 million Russian viewers about the threat. Muller addressed the viewers in fluent Russian.

Dr. James Muller (right), with members of the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War after they were awarded the Nobel.
Dr. James Muller (right), with members of the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War after they were awarded the Nobel. Associated Press/File 1985/Paul R. Benoit

Another American cardiologist who took part in the broadcast was Dr. John Pastore, also a longtime Boston physician. In the 1960s, he was one of the first US doctors to visit Hiroshima after the United States dropped an atomic bomb in 1945, killing more than 90,000 people. Conveying the human suffering that continued decades later “is getting more challenging the farther away we get” from the bombing, said Pastore, now 77.

The calculations behind nuclear deterrence can seem remote to young people, especially those who have few connections to the military and no direct experience of war, said Lawrence Clifford, a retired Air Force brigadier general who flew reconnaissance jets for the Strategic Air Command.

“Jim Muller and most of my military colleagues would be on the same page” on preventing nuclear war, Clifford said.

For all his passion, Muller admitted he “burned out” on the nuclear issue in the mid-1980s. “The issue is so horrible that it’s difficult to work on it your entire life,” he said. But after more than 30 years of focusing on his career, raising a family, and launching a couple of startups aimed at detecting the plaques that cause heart attacks, Muller returned to the cause two years ago when he became unnerved by rising tensions with North Korea.

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The insults and nuclear threats exchanged between President Trump and the North Korean leader, Kim Jong Un, in 2017 were “a wake-up call that the problem was back,” said Muller. He arranged a meeting in New York with the North Korean ambassador to the United Nations. Muller was invited to visit Pyongyang, but the trip was canceled by the US government during preparations for the first Trump-Kim summit.

Muller said he plans to “get a Twitter handle” to help get the word out. But he first turned to a more familiar and conventional forum to reach medical peers. He and a pair of coauthors, Pastore at St. Elizabeth’s Medical Center and Dr. Amir Lerman of Mayo Clinic, drew a provocative analogy in a paper published last month in Circulation, an American Heart Association journal.

“Cardiovascular events we work to prevent — sudden cardiac death, myocardial infarction, rupture of an aneurysm, stent thrombosis, stroke — are low probability, high-consequence negative events,” they wrote in the paper. “These catastrophic occurrences threaten our patients in much the same way that nuclear war threatens humanity.”

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The scientists’ alarm isn’t reflected in public polling. In a Gallup poll before last November’s midterm election, gun policy and climate change were listed among 12 issues deemed extremely or very important. The nuclear threat didn’t register. By contrast, 57 percent of Americans surveyed by Gallup in 1984 cited nuclear weapons as a top issue.

At the recent lunch in the Brigham cafe, Muller talked about the difficulty of combining activism and a medical career with Hodgkin, the Brigham resident, and another young protege, Noy Kaufman, 26, a cardiovascular research assistant at the Brigham who is bound for medical school. They spoke about bird-dogging presidential candidates. Muller also urged them to press forward with his group’s “Back from the Brink” campaign, which advocates ending the unchecked authority of a president to launch a nuclear attack and scrapping a trillion-dollar “enhanced” weapons program.

But will enough people listen? “It’s a question of human intelligence,” Muller told his young colleagues. “Can people recognize the threat without actually experiencing it?”


Robert Weisman can be reached at robert.weisman@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeRobW.