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Logo of the The Nobel Peace Prize 1985, which was awarded to International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War

History of medical anti-war activism

Health professionals have worked for 40 years to inform the public about the health consequences of the use, testing and production of nuclear weapons. The International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW) won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1985 for this educational work. But the anti-nuclear campaign arises from a long history of medical opposition to war. Here is a short history of some of the highlights.

Medical Opposition to Conventional War

In the 19th century most people felt that war was an unavoidable disaster, like a natural disaster. The establishment of the International Committee of the Red Cross in 1863 aimed to ‘humanize’ war: health professionals could ease suffering by treating the sick and wounded regardless of their nationality. Red Cross organizations were soon acting as voluntary extensions of the military health care system, taking orders from military health officers.

In 1905 the first real medical peace group, L’Association Médicale Internationale Contre La Guerre was established to abolish war. At the end of the 1920s the Dutch Anti-War Group of Nurses argued doctors and nurses would be most effective if they refused to participate in war, thus bringing armed conflicts to an end sooner - and saving more lives - than curative action could. This discussion is still at the heart of the relationship between health care and war.

In 1930, the Dutch Medical Association’s Committee for War Prevention called on other national medical associations to cooperate in preventing ‘the health disaster called war’. Hundreds of doctors, including Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, signed the Appeal to the World’s Physicians, refusing to participate in war preparation. In 1936 the Committee declared that ‘the work of preserving peace is a prophylactic measure of the first order’ and that it was ‘only logical’ to educate health professionals to ‘prevent the miserable consequences of war by forestalling its outbreak’.

The rise of Hitler ended many of these activities. Pacifism - medical or not - was considered an inadequate response to the rise of totalitarianism. Many people felt that the brute forces of national socialism and international communism could only be countered by similar means.

For more information and further reading, see the ‘See Also’ section below.

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Medical Peace Work

University of Bergen

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