A life in medicine

In memory of a mentor and inspirational leader: Bernard Lown, MD

A prominent cardiologist, Dr. Lown invented the the first reliable direct-current defibrillator and authored an influential book on compassion in medicine.

Bernard Lown, MD, died at the age of 99 on Feb. 16 in his home in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts. His legacy—described as concentric circles of influence—is unrivaled.

A prominent cardiologist at Harvard, Dr. Lown revolutionized the care of patients with heart attacks by pioneering cardiac care units, and was amongst the first to promote a focus on diet and exercise in cardiac patients. He introduced lidocaine in the treatment of life-threatening arrhythmias, and invented the first reliable direct-current defibrillator.

As an outspoken social activist, Dr. Lown founded Physicians for Social Responsibility and co-founded the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, which received a Nobel Peace Prize in 1985 for raising awareness of the threat and consequences of nuclear war during the Cold War.

Bernard Lown, MD, and John R. Gimpel, DO, MEd

Compassion in medicine

I had been using his book, “The Lost Art of Healing: Practicing Compassion in Medicine,” in teaching at Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine and Georgetown University School of Medicine since it was first released in 1996.

Dr. Lown wrote, “Medicine’s profound crisis … is that medicine has lost its way, if not its soul. An unwritten covenant between doctor and patient, hallowed over several millennia, is being broken.”

In the forward of the second edition of the book in 1998, Dr. Lown wrote:

“Patients will not acquiesce to the ultimate alienation of being reduced to standardized objects. No one will accept for long being merely identified by their illness, as nothing but an assemblage of broken down biologic parts. Patients crave a partnership with their physicians who are as sensitive to their aching souls as to their malfunctioning anatomy. They yearn not for a tautly drafted business contract but for a covenant of trust between equals earned by the doctor exercising the art of caring.”

His book remains relevant today. It emphasizes the art of doctoring—the importance of connection and the use of empathetic communication during the medical interview, not just innovative technologies and instrumentation.

A longtime friendship

Dr. Lown was born in Lithuania in 1921, and shared captivating stories of his immigration and his grandfather, a rabbi. His father ran a shoe factory in Maine and Dr. Lown was a proud graduate of the University of Maine before going on to medical school at Johns Hopkins University.

He and his wife of 73 years, Louise, who died in 2019, loved to tell stories about their three beloved children and several beloved grandchildren.

I first met Dr. Lown in 2002 at a Harvard Macy Institute faculty development training. We became pen pals and corresponded through hand-written letters over nearly 20 years.

In 2009, when I was dean at the University of New England College of Osteopathic Medicine, Dr. Lown returned to his one-time home state of Maine and delivered the commencement address, inspiring 120 new doctors of osteopathic medicine, their families, and the faculty with his wisdom and words of motivation.

He said he thought that osteopathic medicine had “a leg up” in providing the kind of care that patients and families long for and deserve, partnering with patients and seeking to understand and serve their whole-person needs—body, mind and spirit.

Dr. Lown’s teachings at Harvard, his book, “The Lost Art of Healing,” his lectures around the world and his work with his Lown Forum have positively influenced the care of hundreds of thousands of patients. These patients have encountered the thousands of colleagues, health care team members, medical students, residents and fellows whom he has taught and inspired.

I consider myself fortunate to have been his friend and one of his biggest fans.

Related reading:

Not waiting around to die: Considering my prognosis after a heart transplant

Requiem for the written note

1 comment

  1. Every so often, we cross paths with people who forever change us. Dr. Bernard Lown was one of them. He was a humanitarian whose efforts would help end the Cold War with Russia and earn him a Nobel Peace Prize. I chuckle to think of this when he asked this cardiac nurse, “Do you know what else I did?” Me: “No.” Dr. Lown: “I invented the defibrillator. Do you know what else I did?…I invented the use of Lidocaine for ventricular arrhythmias.” Me: “wow!!” ( What I was actually thinking is, “Holy crap, that is huge!”). But it wasn’t those accomplishments that made him big. It was how he related to people. When we first met, he asked me if I ever smiled, I told him yes, but I was a little busy that morning. That sparked the conversation above. He told me about the introduction to Norman Cousin’s “The Healing Heart” that describes laughter as a form of therapy in cancer patients. He later went on to give me a copy that I cherish to this day. It wasn’t the HUGE things he did that mattered, it’s about how we relate to each other. It’s about compassion. Although our encounter was brief, I will never forget his message that caring relationships matter the most. Thank you, Dr. Bernard Lown, well done! R.I.P.

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