Physicians first confronted the medical consequences of the use of nuclear weapons while struggling to care for the victims of the US atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. A decade later, doctors found heightened levels of strontium 90 and iodine 131 in children and adults as a result of radioactive fallout from atmospheric nuclear weapons tests.
In 1962, a group of American physicians including Bernard Lown, Jack Geiger, and Victor Sidel documented the full range of medical consequences of a nuclear attack. Their research was published as a series of groundbreaking articles in the New England Journal of Medicine.
During the Cold War of the 1980s, IPPNW physicians engaged in a global education campaign about the medical consequences of nuclear war and warned the public and the leaders of the nuclear superpowers that the medical profession would be unable to provide effective care in the aftermath of a nuclear attack. That conclusion was echoed by the American Medical Association, the British Medical Association, the World Health Organization, and other leading medical bodies.
Our nuclear dangers have only increased in the 21st century, as more states have acquired nuclear weapons and the nuclear-armed states have refused to comply with their disarmament obligations. In 2007, IPPNW and the Royal Society of Medicine co-sponsored a major conference in London to review the current state of knowledge about nuclear weapons effects, including the impact on the global climate. That same year, IPPNW launched ICAN—the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons.
ICAN made the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons the centerpiece of its campaign for a treaty to prohibit them under international law—a treaty that was adopted by the United Nations in 2017 and that will enter into force on January 22, 2021, having been ratified by the required 50 states.
In awarding the 1985 Nobel Peace Prize to IPPNW, the Nobel Committee cited the work of physicians in “spreading authoritative information and creating an awareness of the catastrophic consequences of atomic warfare.” Three decades later, the Nobel Committee returned to this theme when, in 2017, it recognized ICAN’s efforts “to draw attention to the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons.”