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Farewell to a friend and mentor: H. Jack Geiger, 1925-2020

December 30, 2020

When I met Jack Geiger in 1987, he was already legendary. One of the founders of Physicians for Social Responsibility and a co-author—along with Vic Sidel, Bernard Lown, and others—of a series of groundbreaking articles about the medical consequences of nuclear war published by the New England Journal of Medicine in 1962, he had just finished his term as PSR’s president when I joined the staff as communications director. I had no sooner arrived in Washington when my new boss, Jane Wales, sent me back to Boston to slow down, if not outright stop, a plan that Jack was developing with Vic and another board member, Jennifer Leaning, to start a new PSR journal. Much to Jane’s chagrin, I returned to Washington persuaded that the journal was a great idea. Much more important for me, I had met the three people who would be my mentors and, not infrequently, my most relentless taskmasters for many years to come.

One didn’t have to spend more than a few minutes in Jack’s company to realize that he was nearly always the keenest, wittiest, most honest person in the room. He was famous at PSR board meetings for taking good ideas and making them better in the process of endorsing them, and eviscerating bad ideas with irony-laden criticisms that brooked no rebuttal. 

Jack told a story once about participating in a televised debate about nuclear civil defense with Dr. Gerald Looney, a Cold-War-era advocate for fallout shelters, evacuation, and iodine prophylaxis. While Jack was more than prepared to refute these claims on their substance, he knew an opportunity when he heard it knocking. (Paraphrasing) “I listened quietly to several minutes of nonsense about how anyone in a fallout shelter could survive a nuclear war. When it was my turn to speak, I said ‘according to the Looney theory…’ and, in that moment, I knew I had won the debate.” He caustically dismissed the spurious claims about a “missile gap” used by the Reagan administration to justify the US buildup of nuclear arms: “The only real gap that I’m sure of is the terrible shortage of targets in relation to the number of nuclear weapons that the major powers have.”

If Jack was a master of irony, he was even more skilled at the art of understatement. He perfected what came to be known at PSR and IPPNW as the “bombing run,” a roughly 30-minute presentation (the time it would take for Soviet missiles to arrive in the US after launch, or vice versa) of what would happen to a city and its people in the event of a one-megaton nuclear explosion. He had an encyclopedic knowledge of the effects down to the smallest detail, describing the intense heat and blast, firestorms, deaths and physical injuries, radiation sickness, and destruction of infrastructure (including hospitals) in a clinical—almost deadpan—delivery. Jack was known as a rabble-rouser. But he was a good doctor first, and he trusted that the facts, presented candidly and with little embellishment, would move people to act.

Jack had a facility with language that came from years of honing his craft as a journalist before he went to medical school. More than once, I ended a phone call with an assignment to draft a press release or an op-ed, only to have a finished piece from Jack arrive in the fax machine (ancient tech) while I was still organizing my notes from our conversation. The editorials he wrote for The PSR Quarterly (the journal I was supposed to have squashed) and for its successor, Medicine & Global Survival, blended insight, wisdom, and passion in equal measure. 

Jack’s crowning achievement at PSR, it’s fair to say, was his leadership of the Physicians’ Task Force on the Health Hazards of Nuclear Weapons Production, which he chaired from 1988-92. The task force, comprising experts from around the country, was charged with conducting a critical review of the epidemiological studies conducted (or not) by the US Department of Energy in an effort to identify and document occupational illnesses and their probable causes among workers at nuclear weapons plants. The group published its findings in a report called Dead Reckoning in 1992. Jack, however, never saw this as a purely academic exercise. Whether he was helping to organize medical workers in the deep South during the era of the Freedom Riders, challenging systemic racism and poverty, taking on human rights violations in Yugoslavia, Bosnia, or the West Bank and Gaza, or advocating for the elimination of nuclear weapons, Jack was always looking to expose and alleviate root causes of human suffering. In the case of the nuclear plant workers, he was not satisfied until the US government took responsibility for the damage to their health and implemented a compensation program that continues to this day.

I last saw Jack in 2013 at an event in Boston honoring his great friend and co-conspirator Vic Sidel. Glaucoma had robbed him of his sight, and he had to ask who I was as I approached him. The bigger problem was the lung cancer. As far as I know, Jack only failed at one thing in his life that mattered. He couldn’t quit smoking despite countless attempts, and he paid the price. Yet despite his frail condition that afternoon, his irrepressible and infectious cheerfulness prevailed, as did his inclination to turn the conversation away from himself and towards what really interested him—what it was going to take to give everyone a fair shake and some dignity. I went home that day knowing what I would remember most about Jack when the day came.

That day has arrived, and while the news is sad, I’m thinking back on the very long and very accomplished life of one of the people I admire most in the world. 

Here’s a 1984 video I found on YouTube. It’s classic Geiger. Among other things, you will learn how much a cubic yard of dirt weighs, and why that might matter to someone who had just evacuated New York City in anticipation of a nuclear attack.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. December 31, 2020 8:45 am

    Fabulous work, John, in helping to preserve Jack’s legacy, recovering the youtube recording and making the Dead Reckoning pdf available. In many ways it is amazing how not all that much has changed. His description of the medical effects of nuclear bombs remains to be re-learnt by the current generation, but the current global peril has expanded because of the ways new technology can be subverted by today’s and tomorrow’s military-industrial-complexes (cyber-warfare, more effective promulgation of fake stories, disrespect of ‘experts’, etc..) and also the threats to security from climate change, loss of biodiversity etc. Our survival so far is indebted to the work of people like Jack. It is however even more urgent for the next generation to counter such developments by refamiliarising ourselves with the ways these threats can be mitigated and countered. Jack’s legacy is certainly inspirational and must be passed on

  2. michaelorgel permalink
    December 30, 2020 8:24 pm

    Thank you for your heartfelt tribute and memories.

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  1. In Memoriam: Dr. H. Jack Geiger, PSR Founding Member - Physicians for Social Responsibility

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