History of medical anti-nuclear activism

Medical Opposition to Nuclear War

After the use of atom bombs against Japan in 1945 many health professionals realised that it would be futile to try to provide health care in a nuclear war. As the USSR, UK, France and China also become nuclear states, doctors began to speak out about the nuclear arms race as part of a new organization called International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War. The central message of the IPPNW was that there can be no adequate medical response to a nuclear war and most important course of action is to try to prevent it.

In 1980 IPPNW doctors from the US and the Soviet Union agreed to work toward the prevention of nuclear war, excluding all other issues. Within four years IPPNW had 135,000 members in 40 countries. IPPNW called for:

  • a freeze on the development and deployment of nuclear weapons

  • a declaration of no-first-use by the nuclear powers

  • a moratorium on testing while a comprehensive test ban treaty was negotiated

In 1985 Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev announced that the USSR would unilaterally refrain from nuclear testing, and called on the US to do the same. In the same year, the Nobel Prize Committee awarded the IPPNW the prestigious Nobel Peace Prize for its work towards international disarmament. The honour was controversial; conservative politicians in the West accused IPPNW of taking sides with the USSR. The Nobel Committee responded that disarmament has human rights at its heart, even ‘the most fundamental right of all – the right to life.’

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, IPPNW comprehensively documented the health and environmental effects of the production, testing, and use of nuclear weapons. From uranium mining to nuclear testing and production, IPPNW and its affiliates collected and analysed data that gave the public an assessment of the health and environmental costs of pursuing security through nuclear weapons. Making use of its medical authority, IPPNW and its affiliates also organized to protest and change government policies, in the belief that people’s active involvement is essential if war is to be prevented and nuclear weapons abolished. By the end of the Cold War IPPNW’s membership had grown to some 200 000 doctors, other health workers and concerned citizens in every part of the world.

Since the end of the Cold War, new countries - including Israel, Pakistan, India and North Korea - developed nuclear capacities, and new forms of nuclear weapons were developed. At the same time, with deep cuts in nuclear arsenals, public interest shifted to concerns such as the environment, poverty, civil war and terrorism. IPPNW membership declined dramatically but the group still achieved a number of new successes, including:

  • health professional boycott of General Electric to withdraw from the nuclear weapons industry;

  • a landmark ruling from the International Court of Justice confirming the illegality of the threat and use of nuclear weapons;

  • Australian government’s Canberra Commission on the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons which set out a realistic approach to nuclear disarmament;

  • submitting a model Nuclear Weapons Convention to the UN;

  • SatelLife state-of-the-art communications technology to assist the exchange of critically needed information between North and South;

  • campaigning on the health effects of the Gulf Wars;

  • Aiming for Prevention campaign to prevent injuries and death from small arms violence in the developing world;

  • International Coalition to Ban Landmines;

  • ICAN, the 2007 international campaign to abolish nuclear weapons, to reawaken public concern about the growing threat posed by nuclear weapons, and to mobilize civil society to demand a nuclear-weapon-free world through the negotiation and adoption of a nuclear weapons convention.

Conclusion The story of IPPNW echoes the successes and failures of previous attempts at building a medical peace movement. Rapidly changing political and social situations can diminish an organization’s campaigning power, yet IPPNW has achieved much more than any previous medical peace organization, and has had a major influence on policy.


Abrams I (2001). The Nobel Peace Prize and the laureates: an illustrated biographical history 1901-2001. Sagamore Beach, MA, USA, Science History Publications.

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

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