Early Years: Nuclear Test Ban
PSR was founded in 1961 by a group of Boston physicians who played a critical role in raising public awareness of the human health risks associated with the testing, stockpiling and deployment of nuclear weapons.
PSR founders included Dr.s Bernard Lown, Victor W. Sidel, H. Jack Geiger, Sidney Alexander and Alexander Leaf. They were inspired to act following a 1961 talk given in Cambridge by Nobel laureate, Sir Philip Noel-Baker, who warned of the as yet ill-defined health effects of nuclear weapons development. Noel-Baker spoke of the concerning finding of strontium-90, a known radioactive carcinogen associated with nuclear testing, measured in babies teeth near testing sites in the US at levels 50 times higher than earlier baselines.
According to Dr. Alexander, “Noel-Baker ended with a plea for more information, particularly urging biologists and physicians to study the issues of radiation danger more closely….He bewailed the fact that so little was known about their biological effects.”
Following the talk, Lown invited his colleagues to meet informally in his living room. “Doctors must attempt to define the biologic effects of environmental radiation, and also the potential medical devastation that a nuclear conflict might cause,” he said. “I think we have a social responsibility” to speak out on this issue, he added. And so was born Physicians for Social Responsibility.
New England Journal Series on Health Impacts of Nuclear Explosions
Part of the brilliance of the founders of GBPSR was that they translated the issue into terms that were easily understandable both to fellow physicians and the lay public. They published a series of five articles in The New England Journal of Medicine showing what would happen if a 20 megaton atomic bomb fell on Boston: Boston would become a 4 mile crater, and Newton, where Dr. Bernard Lown lived, and the surrounding suburbs, would be incinerated—bomb shelters included.
Three million would be expected to die, either from the direct blast or aftereffects. Medical care would be unavailable, since hospitals as far away as Emerson in Concord, MA would be incapacitated or decimated and because many caregivers would die in the blast.
In collaboration with many other groups, including Women’s Strike for Peace, the British Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, and following the lead of many black leaders like Langston Hughes and Martin Luther King who decried the fundamental racism of nuclear weapons development and deployment, PSR launched an ambitious education campaign that raised awareness of the health risks of nuclear weapons testing: posters were distributed that read “Cease Nuclear Testing” on a prescription pad; a worldwide “Cease Fire” campaign protested every reported nuclear test by any country.
This successful educational campaign was effective and led to an international ban on atmospheric, underwater and outer space nuclear weapons testing in 1963. Unfortunately for those who lived in the shadow of nuclear test sites and would later develop the cancers and respiratory illness associated with living “downwind” from underground nuclear weapons testing, a comprehensive nuclear weapons testing ban would not be signed into law until 1996.
1980s: Nuclear Disarmament Talks with Soviet Union; Nobel Prize
In the early 1980s, as the nuclear weapons race heated up again and the number of nuclear weapons worldwide ballooned to over 60,000, PSR became revitalized, with chapters forming around the country. PSR worked with many groups to create a large movement, one that spanned the political spectrum to include Republicans, Democrats, conservatives and liberals. In 1982, these groups convened in New York City for what was at the time the largest peace rally in US history, the one million person Nuclear Freeze March in Central Park. It included representatives from the Congressional Black Caucus, the Lawyer’s Alliance for Nuclear Arms Control (LANAC), the American Association of School Administrators, the American Association of University Women, the American Nurses Association, the American Pediatric Society, the American Public Health Association, Friends of the Earth, the National Council of La Raza, the National Education Association, the U.S. Conference of Mayors, and the Young Women’s Christian Association.
PSR grew to include very active medical student chapters. Even high school students became involved, thanks to lectures run by the Union of Concerned Scientists and others.
Greater Boston PSR, the founding chapter, was created under the leadership of Drs. Helen Caldicott, Eric Chivian and Ira Helfand. A group of PSR founders forged a new international group called International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW), whose membership grew over five years to 200,000 members in 40 countries. Together, the groups demanded a verifiable freeze on the development and deployment of all nuclear weapons and a declaration of “no first use” by the world’s nuclear powers. For their efforts to educate the world about the risks of nuclear weapons, IPPNW and its US affiliate PSR shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 1985.
A Broadened Mission: The Health Impacts of Environmental Pollution and Climate Change
In the 1990s, GBPSR broadened its mission to include other major public health issues, including environmental health, human rights and social justice issues such as domestic violence and structural racism, and climate change.
We have likewise broadened our membership: we welcome and are honored to include members of all backgrounds and professions.
In 1992, GBPSR became a medical community leader in addressing environmental health with a groundbreaking conference at the MIT titled Human Health and Environment, organized by Dr. Eric Chivian. Over 700 people attended. Chivian and others would go on to author a seminal book, Critical Condition: Human Health and the Environment (MIT Press, 1993), that included chapters from leading epidemiologists and public health physicians who were among the first to emphasize the environment as a social determinant of health.
Since that time, GBPSR has worked effectively to educate the medical community, policy makers and the public about the health consequences of air pollution, environmental pollutants such as pesticides and dioxin, and climate change.
Our seminal research reports, Generations at Risk: Reproductive Health and the Environment (1996, and MIT Press, 1999), In Harm’s Way: Toxic Threats to Child Development (2000), No Room to Breathe (2000) and Environmental Threats to Healthy Aging (2008) have provided the scientific groundwork for advocacy campaigns to protect health and have helped change public policies as well as clinical practice.
GBPSR’s Human Health and the Environment Project (HHEP), led by Drs. Ted Schettler, Jill Stein, Gina Solomon and Jeff Dickey, along with Maria Valenti, was one of the first in the PSR organization to focus on the individual and public health consequences of environmental pollution. HHEP helped educate the medical community on the linkages between environmental exposures and health, activating members to work to protect public health, providing community groups with resources on human health and environment issues, and participating in public policy debates.
Stein and Schettler created numerous lectures for health and medical organizations including a grand rounds lecture on environmental health that they presented around the country. Dr. Jefferson Dickey, author of No Room to Breathe, focussed on the health effects of air pollution from fossil fuel burning power plants, and would go on to found the Committee on Environmental and Occupational Health at the Massachusetts Medical Society, which he and Schettler both served on.
GBPSR has educated over 10,000 health professionals through its education courses and broke new ground by developing clinical tools on environment and health, such as its Pediatric Environmental Health Toolkit, endorsed by the American Academy of Pediatrics, featured in a five-state training program funded by the EPA, and subsequently as an online CME course developed in conjunction with the US Centers for Disease Control’s Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry and the Western States Pediatric Environmental Health Specialty Unit. GBPSR served for many years on the community advisory committee of the Boston University Superfund Basic Research Program (BUSBRP), which conducts research into the reproductive and developmental effects of many pollutants including dioxin and PCBs. GBPSR contributed to the BU Health Studies Guide for Communities and the development of the Health and Environment Assistance Resources (HEAR) Database.
Seminal Events / Publications
GBPSR activities have included:
- Massachusetts State House educational panel presentations
- Public and medical lectures and conferences
- Testimony at national hearings on such issues as nuclear waste and the health effects of exposure to radiation
- Hosting nuclear policy expert Daniel Ellsberg, nuclear war planner for US Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy (2005)
- Co-sponsoring public forums, such as “This is not a Test” rally on terrorism and nuclear weapons at Boston’s Faneuil Hall
- Offering testimony at national public hearings on nuclear waste and the health effects of exposure to radiation
- Photo exhibits including noted nuclear chronicler Robert Del Tredici at the Boston Public Library
- Public art exhibits, including “Twilight’s Last Gleaming;” in collaboration with IPPNW, brought a 13,000 piece public art installation on nuclear waste to Boston’s City Hall Plaza
- Testimony to the DEP, EEA and DPU regarding the health harms of natural gas infrastructure
- Meeting with the head of the DPH to highlight the many health risks of the Weymouth compressor station
- Film showings at theaters combined with presentations
- An international letter writing campaign in the nuclear states
- An active speaker’s bureau: invited talks have included presentations on electrification to local community groups and talks on the health risks of natural gas infrastructure at Northeastern University’s Global Health Initiative and before many local and national groups such as Food and Water Watch and 350.org
- Developing and presenting the first medical grand rounds on the health effects of nuclear weapons
- Medical grand rounds on air pollution, Brown University
- Partnering with local academic institutions like the Boston University School of Public Health in our “Ask the Expert” program and on symposia on the health risks of fossil fuels
- Partnering with many local advocacy groups, including Green Roots, Allandale Coalition and Mothers Out Front, and with them have offered testimony on health equity issues such as saving the trees on Melnea Cass Boulevard and the unfairness of placing a large Eversource substation in an environmental justice neighborhood in Chelsea
- Publishing scholarly papers appearing in the New England Journal of Medicine, the American Journal of Public Health
- Advocating successfully for passage of robust policy on air pollution, comprehensive health impact assessments for natural gas infrastructure expansions, nuclear war abolition and the many health and safety dangers of the Weymouth compressor station, at the Massachusetts Medical Society.
We have joined with many other groups in developing and conducting educational activities on the medical consequences of nuclear war / nuclear weapons development and climate change and its causes. GBPSR members are sought after as trusted sources for information and often quoted in the local and national press.
Since 2017, GBPSR has focused its climate advocacy on the health risks of fossil fuels, speaking out on the myriad dangers of oil and gas development in lectures, reports, journal articles and symposia.
Renowned artist Corita Kent donated talent and artwork to many GBPSR campaigns, including a national billboard campaign based on her artwork “We Can Create Life Without War.” Corita felt strongly that her prints remain freely available (to download, right-click above and select “save as”, or click here).