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IPPNW mourns a founder and leader, Herb Abrams

January 26, 2016

Dr. Herbert L. Abrams, one of the original founders and leaders of IPPNW, passed away peacefully at his home on January 20, 2016.  He was 95 years old.  In 1979, Dr. Abrams, then the chairman of the radiology department at Harvard Medical School, was among a small group of Harvard physicians who began discussing the urgent need for a Soviet-American dialogue on the threat of nuclear war.  Encouraged by the response they received from their Soviet colleagues, Dr. Abrams, Dr. Bernard Lown, Dr. James Muller, and Dr. Eric Chivian formally organized IPPNW in 1980 as a non-profit educational organization.  In the ensuing years, IPPNW’s founders demonstrated to the world that American and Soviet physicians could cooperate on the gravest threat to health and human survival, which led to the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to IPPNW only five years later.  Dr. Abrams remained an active leader in both IPPNW and Physicians for Social Responsibility, the US affiliate of IPPNW, contributing to the intellectual and organizational growth of the physicians’ movement. 

A moving tribute to this giant in medicine and peace work has been written by his son John Abrams, and is reprinted here.

Herbert L. Abrams 1920-2016

Herbert L. Abrams


by John Abrams

Hebert Leroy Abrams – physician, scholar, author, and activist – died peacefully at home in Palo Alto, California, on January 20, 2016, surrounded by family. He was 95.

His illustrious, multi-dimensional career embraced what he called the “four dimensions of bio-medicine” – patient care, research, teaching, and advocacy.

Born in 1920 in New York, he graduated from Cornell University, went to medical school at Downstate SUNY, and completed his residency at Long Island College Hospital and Montefiore Hospital in internal medicine in 1948. Though he had intended to become a psychiatrist, he discovered internal medicine and was captivated by radiological imaging, which provided the road map for virtually all surgical and many medical therapies.

Drawn to the West, he and his wife Marilyn and daughter Nancy moved to San Francisco in 1948. They raised their two children – Nancy and John – in the Bay Area while Herb rose to become Director of Diagnostic Radiology at Stanford Medical Center.   These years – which he often called the Golden Years – were defined by child rearing, rich friendships, and many professional accomplishments.

In 1967, with the kids pursuing their own paths, he and Marilyn moved to Boston where he became the Chairman of Radiology at Harvard Medical School and radiologist-in-chief at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital and the Dana Farber Cancer Center.

Toward the end of his time at Harvard (prior to moving back to Stanford in 1985) he developed a keen interest in the effects of ionizing radiation and nuclear weapons, and the problems of accidental or inadvertent nuclear war.

He was the Founding Vice President of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, the recipient of the 1985 Nobel Peace Prize. He served on the National Board of Directors of Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR) for 20 years and was a National Co-Chairman during the 1980’s. PSR’s message was that the medical community could in no way cope with the destruction caused by a massive nuclear exchange – there was no cure, only prevention – and his eternal optimism led Herb to believe that they could make a difference. They did, and he said at the time, “I believe that you and I can make a difference, both as individuals and as part of a collective entity that shares the values and vision of a world of peace.”

In his academic career, he was an internationally known authority on cardiovascular radiology. Herb wrote over 190 articles and seven books on cardiovascular disease and health policy, for many years he was Editor-in-Chief of Postgraduate Radiology, and he was founding Editor-in-Chief of the journal Cardiovascular and Interventional Radiology.

In 1961 he published Angiography, the first comprehensive volume on the subject. A second edition appeared in 1971, and the third as a three volume work in 1983. The fourth edition, edited by Stanley Baum, M.D. and now titled Abrams’ Angiography: Vascular and interventional Radiology, was released in 2000.

He was awarded the Gold Medal of the Association of University Radiologists of the Radiological Society of North America and most recently the 2000 Gold Medal from the Society of Cardiovascular and Interventional Radiology in recognition of his lifetime achievements in cardiovascular radiology.

When he returned to Stanford in 1985 as Professor of Radiology, he spent most of his time in research at the Center for International Security and Cooperation, working to link various disciplines and philosophies in the political, international and academic arenas to create a better understanding of international security during the nuclear age.

In the 1990’s he began to focus on presidential disability and its potential impact on decision-making. His book, The President Has Been Shot: Disability, Confusion and the 25th Amendment was published in 1992 .

Near the end of his long life, he wrote about the effects of aging, not only on leaders but also on himself. He lived vigorously – a life defined by deep compassion, rigorous inquiry, tremendous success, and a rich family life. He continually made new friends, young and old, even in the last years of his life.

Herb is survived by his wife of nearly 70 years, Marilyn, and his daughter Nancy (and her husband, Richard) and son John (and wife, Chris), in addition to three grandchildren – Pinto Abrams, Sophie Abrams, and Natasha Eilbert – and three great-grandchildren – Kalib Abrams, Silas Abrams, and Axel Abrams.   He is pre-deceased by his sister Evelyn Mauss and his brother Mason Adams.

An essential part of his life was bringing together his whole family to travel, to ski, to play tennis, to celebrate birthdays and holidays. He could never get enough of these activities. On his 95th birthday he played four generations tennis with son, grandson, and great grandson on Martha’s Vineyard, where his family spent summers for 45 years.

Memorial donations in memory of Herb Abrams may be made to Physicians for Social Responsibility 1111 14th St. NW, #700, Washington, DC 20005 or A service to celebrate his life will be held on the Stanford campus in late February or early March.

One Comment
  1. Dr.Asoka Hettiarachchi permalink
    January 28, 2016 11:39 am

    Dr.Herbert Leroy Abrams was such a giant in international Nuclear Disarmament Movement his Peaceful Death is irrecoverable loss for the entire Peace Loving Community in the World.
    Asoka Hettiarachchi
    Sri-Lankan Doctors for Peace and Development.

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