Bernard Lown, a leading cardiologist in the United States, was born in Utena, Lithuania, on June 7, 1921, and he died in Boston, Massachusetts, on February 16, 2021, at 99 years of age.
When asked about his relatives, Dr Lown, my mentor, answered as a matter of fact: one-third in Israel, one-third in the United States, and one-third ashes. “If you don´t learn from history, you are condemned to repeat it”—with this motto, this great man was a caring physician, gifted clinical teacher, brilliant researcher in cardiology, and always a “homo politicus.”
The family moved to Maine, “having heard the bootsteps of Nazi Germany occupying Memelland.” Originally from a family of shoemakers, Lown started his medical career at the University of Maine, earning his MD in 1945 from Johns Hopkins University.
He then worked at Yale New Haven Hospital, Jewish Hospital, and Montefiore Hospital, New York.
From 1950 to 1953 he trained and conducted cardiovascular research with Dr Samuel Levine at the Peter Bent Brigham Hospital in Boston.
During his military service (served as captain), he refused to separate blood donations to “white and black.” On being degraded to the cleaning of the toilets in his barracks for about a year, he later summed it up as: “It ruined my life for one year and delayed my career for a decade but made me a better physician.”
He then became assistant at the Peter Bent Brigham Hospital, later at Harvard Medical School, and until 1970 served as director of the Samuel A. Levine Cardiovascular Research Laboratory. Professor Sam Levine was his inspiring teacher. He finally became Professor of cardiology at the Harvard School of Public Health.
His life was rich: He saw patients until his late 80s, always taking enough time and trying to explore the whole personality, which can be witnessed in his book, The Lost Art of Healing.
He was an exceptional teacher, passing on his deep insight into the heart—not only muscle or electrical unit or pharmacological target but also core of humanity. He started his fellowship-program (Brigham II) with trainees from all over the world: during my time with him from Serbia, Chile, Syria, the United States, and two from Germany. We gained deep insights into the field of cardiology, the ties between the heart and the mind, and the understanding of the interference of life style and health. I am deeply grateful also to the late Dr Tom Graboys and all the other cardiologists on the team for this humane and profound teaching experience.
Among many accomplishments Lown developed the concept of “bed to armchair” transfer in the 1950s, which is the early ambulation after myocardial infarction (instead of complete and deleterious bedrest for 6 weeks); coined the term “sick sinus syndrome” (originally sleepy sinus syndrome); introduced the precordial thump to reverse ventricular tachycardia; described the Lown, Ganong, Levine (LGL) syndrome; established one of the first critical care units at the Brigham; and introduced the use of lidocaine for ventricular arrhythmias in the critical care unit.
He became most famous for the invention of the direct current electrical cardioverter/defibrillator in 1962 and for his classification of the ventricular ectopic beats in 1971.
Early on in 1960 he took on the social responsibility of physicians by starting a series of articles in the New England Journal of Medicine about the devastating effects of the use of nuclear weapons. His organization founded with his Russian counterpart Y. Chazov the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War. They were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1985. Lown told of having been invited by Mikhail Gorbachev but never by Ronald Reagan. Congratulated for her son's Nobel Peace Prize, his mother Bella Lown snapped: “He should have been awarded the Nobel Prize for medicine long ago.”
He never stopped fighting injustice and unfair lack of resources; with “satelLite” he tried to sponsor vital information delivery to African countries via transmission from a satellite in orbit. He raised money through the Lown Foundation for distribution to people in medical need and fought for inexpensive insulin, enabling regular injections for people with low incomes.
Being good-natured with an unflinching sense of humor, he could be sharp and outspoken when it came to moral principles.
When I started my fellowship 1 month after his 70th birthday he quoted Clemenceau: “What matters for a man: after 40: passion; after 50: power; after 60: palate; and after 70: bowel movement.”
On another occasion, he adamantly scolded one of his patients for having estranged herself from her son because he married a woman of Vietnamese origin; the patient reconnected with her son, and her rhythm disorders abated.
During his last years, he always hoped that he could live to his 100th birthday. We owe Dr Lown so much, and our world is poorer without him, but we are deeply grateful for his legacy.
I thank Shmuel Ravid, MD, MPH, at the Lown Cardiovascular Center and Harvard Medical School for his insights and shared memories as a former Lown trainee and, subsequently, a colleague of Dr Lown.
Published online: May 11, 2021
Conflicts of Interest: I was a fellow at the Lown cardiovascular group from 1991 to 1993 and was motivated to write this obituary on the basis of my profound gratitude for Professor Lown.
Authorship: The author is solely responsible for the content of this manuscript.
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