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Lunch with a Laureate: Eric Chivian

04/29/2010 12:00 PM Museum
Eric Chivian, Co"founder International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War; 1985 Nobel Peace Prize

Description: In 1978, in his last years of residency in psychiatry at Mass General Hospital, Eric Chivian decided to do something bold. Encouraged by Australian physician, Helen Caldicott, who spoke of the medical dangers of the nuclear fuel cycle and of nuclear power, in particular, he decided to restart an old medical organization-Physicians for Social Responsibility. Their opening public meeting was scheduled, coincidentally, on the same day of the partial"core meltdown at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania. Within weeks, Physicians for Social Responsibility became a national organization with thousands of new members as a result.

While many older physicians within the organization were more concerned with nuclear war, others were focused on the use of nuclear power. Both were interested in disseminating information about what they believed would be the devastating medical and environments effects of nuclear power use gone wrong. Chivian believes in the importance of physicians and other public health professionals getting involved in global environmental issues-that their role is to provide help in translating complex and abstract concepts that are often difficult for the public to understand into human health terms. To this end, he also created the Center for Health and the Global Environment at Harvard Medical-to this day the only organization of its kind at a medical school.

Using three important species examples from his most recent book, Sustaining Life: How Human Health Depends on Biodiversity, Chivian describes the overwhelming and sometimes irreversible losses that can occur when we "take for granted what nature supplies us." What can we learn from polar bear physiology that allows them to hibernate for months at a time without developing kidney disease, osteoporosis, or diabetes? Why does the extinction of two gastric"brooding frogs species forever prevent us from developing a potential treatment for peptic ulcers? How can tiny cone snails that produce toxic peptides to defend themselves help provide pain management medications for humans with few side effects and limited tolerance?

The issues, though, are not just medical or scientific-they are also political. Chivian asserts that political will to make changes and reduce human damage to the environment grows out of understanding "what's at stake." He believes that scientists could do a better job of explaining these complex issues to the public and public policy makers. By focusing on the health and medical components, he hopes his groups will make the issues more concrete and understandable for everyone.

About the Speaker(s): Eric Chivian is Founder and Director of the Center for Health and the Global Environment, and an Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychiatry, at Harvard Medical School. In 1980, he co"founded (with Professors Bernard Lown, Herbert Abrams, and James Muller) International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, He is the recipient of the 1985 Nobel Peace Prize.

During the past 18 years, he has worked to involve physicians in the United States and abroad in efforts to protect the environment and to increase public understanding of the potential human health consequences of global environmental change. He was senior editor and author of MIT Press' Critical Condition: Human Health and the Environment. The book, published in 1993, was the first on the subject for a general audience and has been used as a text at several medical schools, schools of public health, and universities in the United States and abroad.

In 1996, Dr. Chivian founded and became director of the Center for Health and the Global Environment at Harvard Medical School-the first center at a medical school in the United States focusing on the human health dimensions of global environmental change. The Center developed and directed the Harvard Medical School course "Human Health and Global Environmental Change" and has held 20 briefings and taught an intensive annual course on the environment and health for the U.S. Congress.

Dr. Chivian is the senior editor and author, with Dr. Aaron Bernstein, of Sustaining Life: How Human Health Depends on Biodiversity, published in June 2008. The book, launched at U.N. headquarters and at the Smithsonian Institution, is the most comprehensive report available on the relationship of human health to the natural world.

He graduated from Harvard College with an A.B. in Biomedical Sciences and a M.D. from Harvard Medical School.

Host(s): Office of the Provost, MIT Museum

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