We have lost one of the most prominent champions of our cause, Dr. Bernard Lown, but we will continue working to fulfill his vision of quality, affordable healthcare for all and restoring the art of healing to medical practice.
By PhilIp Caper, M.D.
On February 16, renowned cardiologist Bernard Lown died at age 99 at his home in Brookline, Massachusetts. I didn’t know Dr. Lown well, but have admired his work for many years, and had the honor of meeting him numerous times. He lived a remarkable life.
Bernie Lown, as he was known by many of us, had several ties to Maine. A bridge in Lewiston was re-named “The Bernard Lown Peace Bridge” in his honor in 2008. He attended Lewiston High School, graduating in 1938, and the University of Maine, graduating in 1942.
Many distinguished physicians are excellent clinicians, extraordinary researchers and innovators, or social activists attempting to make the world a better place. But few excel in all three aspects of our profession. Bernie Lown was one of them.
Dr. Lown was beloved by his many patients. He focused primarily on the prevention of sudden cardiac death, a longtime scourge that claimed many lives and for many years was considered to be an unavoidable result of chronic heart disease.
He worked hard to change the methods that were then generally accepted for treating heart attacks–restricting activity and prescribing long periods of bed rest. He and a few other prominent cardiologists believed that an early return to gradually increasing levels of activity after a heart attack would benefit the patients more, and proved it through his own style of practice and published studies. He later established a cardiac clinic in Brookline that focused on low-tech approaches to treating cardiac disease.
Dr. Lown was also an inventor of new medical technology. He helped to perfect the direct-current cardiac defibrillator, which shocks the heart during a short but critical interval during the cardiac cycle. This invention has saved literally millions of lives by re-starting the cardiac cycle after a cardiac arrest. He also introduced the use of Lidocaine and other drugs as effective treatments for cardiac arrhythmias. Most continue to be used today.
But despite his success in developing new medical technologies, Dr. Lown was also a critic of over-reliance on high-tech devices and drugs when more conservative and less invasive treatments could be as good or better. Why perform highly invasive (and more lucrative) cardiac surgery when much less traumatic treatments, such as medication, drugs, weight loss, exercise, and diet could produce better and much less costly results.
His enthusiasm for low-cost, non-intrusive treatment of heart disease didn’t win many friends in the medical-industrial complex, but produced many fans among young physicians and their patients, and has gradually become the standard of treatment for cardiac disease.
He also understood the critical importance of changing some of the mores and practices of our society as a way to administer the best medicine. I remember him telling a story about what inspired his social activism. While in medical school at Johns Hopkins, he had a moonlighting job working in the blood bank. At the time (1940s), it was customary to segregate the blood donated by Black patients from the blood donated by white patients. He resisted that practice as there was no scientific basis for it. He was almost thrown out of medical school for his insubordination. But eventually, the practice of blood segregation was abandoned.
In the early 1960s, he co-founded Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR) to warn American physicians and the public about the catastrophic dangers of nuclear warfare. In 1980, with Soviet cardiologist Dr. Evgeny Chazov, he founded International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW) to expand awareness of the dangers of nuclear war to humanity. Drs. Lown and Chazov won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1985.
Dr. Lown was also a fierce critic of the corporatization of American medicine. In his book “The Lost Art of Healing: Practicing Compassion in Medicine,” he lamented the corrosive effects of the commercialization, corporatization, and commodification of medical practice in the United States, and its destructive effects on the doctor-patient relationship that is so critical to curing disease and to the promotion of healing.
In 2012, he founded the Lown Institute to promote improvement in the quality of healthcare in America by calling out over-treatment, under-treatment, and mistreatment. In 2017 Maine AllCare, together with the Lown Institute and the medical associations of Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont held a conference on “Professionalism in an Age of Corporatism.”
Of course, Dr. Lown was a strong supporter of a Medicare for All system of universal healthcare for the U.S. as the best way of counteracting the drift toward corporate medical care in America, and of assuring that all Americans have affordable medical care. He will be sorely missed.
Maine AllCare will continue Dr. Lown’s crusade for a more merciful, just, and loving healthcare system by working to make healthcare a right in Maine, and throughout our nation, thereby helping to fulfill Dr. Lown’s vision.