Radiologist and Peace Activist

Herbert Abrams

May/June 2016

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Radiologist and Peace Activist

Photo: Rod Searcey/Special Collections

A Nobel Peace Prize winner who combined an expertise in radiology with his interest in the potential consequences of nuclear war, Herbert Abrams was a fervent peace activist and co-founder of International Physicians for Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW). Starting in the late 1970s, informed by a deep knowledge of radiation, he dedicated himself to preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons.

Abrams, who completed his residency in radiology at Stanford in 1952 and was a longtime faculty member in that department, died on January 20 at his home in Palo Alto. He was 95.

The child of Russian immigrants, Abrams graduated from Cornell University with the expectation that he would join the family hardware business. Instead, he earned a medical degree before coming to Stanford, where he eventually became the director of diagnostic radiology.

In 1967, Abrams and his wife moved to Boston; he served as the Philip H. Cook Professor of Radiology at Harvard Medical School and radiologist in chief at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and the Dana Farber Cancer Center. 

Over time, he developed an interest in the effects of ionizing radiation and nuclear weapons, and he collaborated with colleagues to form Physicians for Social Responsibility. Abrams also co-founded IPPNW, with the dual purpose of educating physicians on the health risks associated with nuclear war and publicizing those risks to a general audience. The organization won the UNESCO Prize for Peace Education in 1984 and the Nobel Peace Prize the following year.

Abrams returned to the Farm in 1985 as a professor of radiology and researcher at Stanford’s Center for International Security and Arms Control, now the Center for International Security and Cooperation. He was also a fellow at Stanford’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies.

An internationally known expert on cardiovascular radiology, Abrams published seven books and nearly 200 articles on cardiovascular disease and health policy.

Abrams cherished time with his wife and children, whether skiing or playing tennis, traveling or relaxing at his second home on Martha’s Vineyard, Mass. According to his son, John, “He was always exhilarated by the rich stew of social and cultural life he found on the Vineyard. It became an essential part of his identity.” 

In addition to his son, Abrams is survived by his wife of 73 years, Marilyn; daughter, Nancy; three grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.

Julie Muller Mitchell, '79, is a writer in San Francisco.

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