Honoring a giant in the movement for peace and social justice
[Victor W. Sidel, MD, a co-founder of Physicians for Social Responsibility, a former PSR president and IPPNW co-president, a contributor to the original studies on the medical consequences of nuclear war that were published in The New England Journal of Medicine in 1962, Distinguished University Professor Emeritus at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine and Montefiore Medical Center, where he taught public health and social medicine, and a former president of the American Public Health Association, was honored over the weekend at a special session celebrating his career during the APHA annual meeting in Boston. Nearly a hundred of Vic’s friends and colleagues were in the room to offer appreciation and thanks for a life devoted to peace, health, and social justice. More than one speaker cited Vic’s simple but profound conviction that the role of a doctor — of anyone, really — is to “serve the people.”
As someone who has known and worked with Vic at both PSR and IPPNW for some 25 years, I was asked to say a few words at the event — an honor for which I was grateful. I’m posting my remarks here.]
Vic’s brilliant and multi-faceted career in public health has included a lifelong commitment to ridding the world of nuclear weapons and preventing the human carnage that results from war and armed violence. Vic was there at the beginning of the physicians movement to alert the world to the existential threat of nuclear weapons. As a key member of a group of mostly New York and Boston-based physicians who dubbed themselves the Physicians for Social Responsibility Study Group, he helped conduct groundbreaking research into the medical consequences of nuclear war some 50 years ago.
The findings, as we all know, were published in The New England Journal of Medicine in 1962. In his autobiography, Bernard Lown called Vic “an insistent disciplinarian,” noting that “a phone call from Vic produced results.” I can tell you that my phone has rung many, many times with Vic on the other end, and that those calls rarely ended without my having a list of results to produce.
Vic’s own productivity is legendary: a seemingly constant flow of books, articles, and reports on war and public health, usually written and edited in collaboration with others, because Vic is, above all else, an enthusiastic and generous collaborator. As a teacher, Vic shares what he knows. And what he knows is encyclopedic, if not exactly pleasant: the blast, heat, and radiation effects of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs, and the horrifying nature of the deaths and injuries they inflicted; what chemical and biological weapons do to the human body; the impact of gun violence on communities; the systemic ways in which war and other forms of armed violence undermine public health, social relations, and human rights; the skewed political priorities that send hundreds of billions of dollars into weapons and preparations for war and the fighting of wars, while starving the programs meant to provide health and education and affordable housing and all the things that would give us real security. Vic was my Wikipedia before there was a Wikipedia.
At least as important as what he knows is the fact that Vic has always acted on what he knows—documenting the social and public health consequences of all these grim realities and issuing a challenge to do something about them.
I first got to know Vic in the late 1980s. I had just joined the staff of PSR in Washington, and he was just finishing his term as President. PSR board meetings were, to put it politely, never boring. Yet Vic, as chair, bent over backwards to be fair to all sides, to ensure that everyone got heard, and to conduct votes with scrupulous neutrality. In hindsight, the mischievous smile should have told me there was more to the picture than met the eye, and the “aha” moment came at Vic’s final meeting in the chair, when he declared his liberation from the self-censorship under which he’d been chafing for the past year and promptly set out to cause as much trouble as he could. Needless to say, the “real” Vic Sidel was infinitely more interesting, not to mention entertaining—at future board meetings.
As Co-President of IPPNW, Vic could be counted on to challenge conventional ways of thinking about nuclear disarmament and what it would take to achieve it. He was an abolitionist when the DC arms control community greeted that word with garlic and wolf’s bane, and he was not reluctant to criticize the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty once it had been tainted with a provision allowing the US to conduct computer simulations that would enable modernization without actual test explosions. Along with his IPPNW co-president Ron McCoy, Vic was an early champion of a nuclear weapons convention and, at his final meeting as a member of the federation’s board, where the idea was still being debated, announced that he would be returning to New York to work for a convention, and that anyone who cared to join him in this endeavor would be welcomed. Eventually, everyone else caught up, and ICAN — the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons — is a validation of Vic’s vision and commitment.
Nothing would make me happier than to have Vic Sidel in the room on the day the treaty outlawing nuclear weapons and consigning them to the dustbin of history is signed. While it has been—and continues to be—a collective uphill effort, the nuclear-weapons-free world that we’ll inevitably achieve will, in no small measure, be part of Vic’s legacy. Thank you, Vic, for some 25 years of mentoring, collaboration, and friendship.
[The journal Social Medicine has published a Festschrift in Honor of Dr. Victor Sidel, including interviews and articles about Vic and the causes he has championed.]