Remembering two great cardiologists: Yevgeny Chazov and Bernard Lown

Derek Yach MBChB MPH
Global Health Consultant
Connecticut, USA
Yevgeny Chazov died recently at 92. A giant leader in cardiology and health during the Soviet era. He started his studies at Kiev Medical Institute. In time he became physician to Communist Party heads from Khrushchev to Gorbachev. Inventor of better therapies to address heart disease. Teacher and mentor to a generation of students who passed through his Moscow base for many decades.
On the other side of the Atlantic, and the other side of political ideology at the time, Bernard Lown died 2 years ago at 99. He too was a major innovator in addressing acute heart disease. Invented the defibrillator and many medications to manage recovery from sudden death. Known for his work on what became the topic of his book- “The lost art of healing” which draws on his Talmudic roots in invoking the words of the 12th century philosopher, Maimonides who prayed “may I never forget the patient is a fellow creature in pain. May I never consider him merely a vessel of disease.”
I was privileged to meet Lown several times in his Boston office and to meet Chazov in 2010 in Moscow. Both struck me as men of science so filled with humility and so dedicated to humanity writ large. I wondered while in their presence why such leaders were not better known. I admired how they had lived into their nineties by practicing the prevention measures they taught their patients.
Their lives intertwined in incredible ways. In 1966 Lown was invited by Chazov to discuss his work on “sudden death” with leaders in Soviet cardiology. At the time Lown recalls that they considered “sudden death an American problem, a disease of capitalism due to stress in a dog-eat-dog society.” At the time heart disease death rates in the Soviet Union were substantially higher then in the USA and in the decades that followed, the gap between them grew disfavoring the Soviet Union and later the countries created after the USSR dissolved.
That meeting led to a lifelong friendship that culminated in them sharing the 1985 Nobel Prize for Peace based upon their leadership of the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War. This was at the height of Cold War and at time when nuclear war was a very real threat. Lown used his Nobel funds to launch low orbit satellites to bring health and scientific knowledge to people across Africa.
Chazov and Lowns’ Nobel acceptance speeches in Oslo deserve reading today for two reasons.
First their fears about nuclear and conventional war remain yet are rarely the topic of popular discussion and no longer addressed by physicians.
Chazov said that “we cannot keep silent knowing what the final epidemic-nuclear war- can bring an end to humanity.” And Lown urged that “we may learn from barbaric and bloody deeds of the 20th Century and bestow the gift of peace to the next millennium.” Sadly, this never happened.
A second reason to read the speeches is to consider our looming climate crisis and how that poses a true existential risk to humanity. No doubt they would be putting their energy behind mobilizing doctors and politicians to act. Chazov’s acceptance speech hints at this when he reminds people that “our contacts with patients inspire our faith in human reason. People are heedful of the voice of physicians who warn of the danger and recommend means of prevention.” These words apply to so many issues and remind us of just how far physicians have drifted from being agents of change for better patient and societal health.
Recently FW de Klerk, past President of South Africa died. With Nelson Mandela (the first democratically elected President of South Africa) they shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993 for work leading to the end of apartheid. Like Chazov and Lown, an unlikely pair, they overcame deep ideological divides to focus on the long-term interest. As an aside, de Klerk as the last white President of South Africa presided over the destruction of South Africa’s nuclear weapons and programs. And in doing so advanced Chazov and Lowns’ vision.
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