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PSR mourns the passing of past PSR President and IPPNW Co-founder Herbert Leroy Abrams

January 27, 2016

In 1979, Dr. Herb 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. As a member and then president of PSR, he was encouraged by the response they received from their Soviet colleagues.

Dr. Abrams, along with Dr. Bernard Lown, Dr. James Muller, and Dr. Eric Chivian formally organized International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War in 1980 as a non-profit educational organization. In the ensuing years, IPPNW's founders demonstrated 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 PSR, contributing to the intellectual and organizational growth of the physicians' movement. His son, John, has provided a moving tribute to this giant in medicine and peace work.

Herbert Leroy Abrams, MD

by John Abrams

Herbert 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.

He and his wife, Marilyn, raised their two children – Nancy and John – in the SF 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, they 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 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 and still is 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 say, "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, his daughter Nancy (and husband Richard) and son John (and wife Chris), in addition to three grand and great-grandchildren.

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 here.

A service to celebrate his life will be held on the Stanford campus on Saturday, March 19th at 3:30 pm at the Arrillaga Alumni Center, McCaw Hall, 326 Galvez St, Stanford, CA.