Officials of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War said yesterday that winning the Nobel Peace Prize will provide a major new boost toward their goal, especially in light of next month's summit conference in Geneva.
"Our movement is a movement of waking people up and making them aware of the medical consequences of nuclear war, of the horror in terms of injury and disease and the fact that there's not going to be any medical help," said Tom Nugent, IPPNW's executive director.
"This award denotes that our message has begun to set in. The timing is excellent. We believe President Reagan and General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev have an extraordinary opportunity next month here in Geneva to negotiate what we believe is an essential first step -- a total nuclear test ban, a cessation of all nuclear testing."
Nugent said the Soviet Union announced its unilateral moratorium on bomb testing exactly one month after IPPNW sent Gorbachev a letter proposing that the United States and the Soviet Union suspend underground bomb testing, the only form permitted under the current treaty.
"The Soviets responded, and now we're waiting for the United States to take the same step," Nugent said. "We feel this would be an easy first step. It doesn't require any trust because its very easy for seismologists to detect underground bomb testing."
Nugent was in Geneva yesterday along with the two co-founders of IPPNW, Dr. Bernard Lown of the Harvard School of Public Health and Dr. Yevgeni Chazov of the Soviet Union's Cardiological Institute. The three had been invited by the World Health Organization, which is based there, to consult on ways of disseminating IPPNW's philosophy more widely.
The organization was founded in Geneva in December 1980 when Lown and Chazov, both world-renowned heart experts who had collaborated on medical research, met to organize an international movement of doctors against nuclear war. Lown and Chazov serve as co-presidents of IPPNW.
A formal movement of doctors opposed to nuclear war began in the United States in 1961 when Lown and other Harvard doctors formed a group called Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR). The first goal, achieved under former president John F. Kennedy, was a ban on testing nuclear weapons anywhere but underground, a step that eliminated the spread of radioactive fallout from explosions in the open air.
In 1962, Lown and his colleagues published an article in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine setting forth the probable catastrophe for emergency medical services that Boston would face if a bomb fell there. They were the first to calculate that the post-attack demand for medical help would be staggering and that there would be almost no medical services available.
After the formation of IPPNW in 1980, PSR became, in effect, the American chapter.
Formation of the international body came in the midst of swelling interest among doctors who had been struck with the idea that nuclear war was, in the last analysis, the greatest imaginable threat to public health.
Dr. Howard Hiatt, former dean of the Harvard School of Public Health and a man many regard as a spiritual father of the current movement, traces the sudden upsurge in interest among doctors to a conference organized in 1980 by a student of his, Eric Chivian.
"Eric asked me to give a talk on the medical consequences of nuclear war," Hiatt recalled yesterday. "I began to think about it as a public health problem and titled my talk 'The Last Epidemic.' This was an approach to the problem that had been overlooked."
Hiatt's ideas caught on quickly. Lown and Chazov formed IPPNW. Dr. Helen Caldicott, a pediatrician who abandoned her medical practice the year before to become president of PSR, began a nationwide public-education campaign, boosting PSR's membership of doctors from around 800 to more than 25,000 in three years.
Dr. Sidney Alexander of the Leahy Clinic in Billington, Mass., is PSR's current president.
Chivian, who became a psychiatrist, continues as a leader of the movement. He found Soviet children much more frightened of the prospect of nuclear war than are their American counterparts.
Today, IPPNW, which has headquarters in Boston, counts 135,000 physicians in 41 countries as members. The largest contingent is in the Soviet Union, where about 60,000 doctors belong. The United States is second, with 29,000.
"It's very gratifying to see what's happening with this movement," Hiatt said. "Now, with the Nobel, this is just one more reflection that people are far out in front of government on this issue. This can only increase our resolve to press on."