Remembering Bernard Lown

It is with great sadness that the Center for the History of Medicine learned of the passing of Dr. Bernard Lown on Monday, February 16 at the age of ninety-nine. Dr. Lown retired from the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health as Professor of Cardiology, Emeritus and Senior Physician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in 1991.

Photograph of Bernard Lown seated in his library, 2014
Still from a Center-conducted interview with Dr. Bernard Lown in 2014. Dr. Lown is seated in his home library.

Since 2002, the Center has been working with Dr. Lown to preserve and create access to his professional records, including those related to his humanitarian activities as co-founder and former Co-President of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (1981), co-founder of Physicians for Social Responsibility (1961), founder of SATELLIFE, and founder of the Lown Cardiovascular Research Foundation (1973). His concern for the medical impact of nuclear war was later equaled by the threats of climate change.

Dr. Lown is perhaps best known as the inventor of the Lown Cardioverter and developer of direct current defibrillation. He discovered cardioversion in 1962 and in 1965 introduced the preventative use of lidocaine. As the New York Times states in his obituary, "It [direct current defibrillation] ushered in a new era of cardiac resuscitation techniques and technological developments, including modern pacemakers and defibrillators implanted in the chests of heart patients that automatically detect and correct abnormal rhythms." His later studies on Sudden Cardiac Death helped inform public health initiatives on preventive care through stress reduction, diet and exercise. Through the application of his research findings, Dr. Lown instituted many improvements in hospital coronary care which became standards implemented world-wide.

Despite these contributions, it was Dr. Lown's accomplishments as a physician activist that defined him as an individual. Whether it was to facilitate remote medical training and the delivery of information to thousands of doctors and health care workers in Africa and Asia or putting human health over politics as he advocated for in so many venues, his impact is evident in the continued work of the School of Public Health's Lown Scholars Program and the records that comprise the Lown Archives.

The Center is grateful for the support it has received from Dr. Lown to make his records available, as well his contributions to the School of Public Health community. We extend our condolences to his family.