Logo of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW)
Logo of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW)

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 achieved a number of new successes, including:

  • Boycott of General Electric to withdraw from the nuclear weapons industry;

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

  • Australia’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 communications technology to exchange of information between North and South;

  • Campaigns 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;


On 6 October 2017 the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) for drawing attention to the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons and efforts to achieve a treaty-based prohibition of nuclear weapons:

“We live in a world where the risk of nuclear weapons being used is greater than it has been for a long time. Some states are modernizing their nuclear arsenals, and there is a real danger that more countries will try to procure nuclear weapons, as exemplified by North Korea. Nuclear weapons pose a constant threat to humanity and all life on earth. Through binding international agreements, the international community has previously adopted prohibitions against land mines, cluster munitions and biological and chemical weapons. Nuclear weapons are even more destructive, but have not yet been made the object of a similar international legal prohibition.

“Through its work, ICAN has helped to fill this legal gap. An important argument in the rationale for prohibiting nuclear weapons is the unacceptable human suffering that a nuclear war will cause. ICAN is a coalition of non-governmental organizations from around 100 different countries around the globe. The coalition has been a driving force in prevailing upon the world’s nations to pledge to cooperate with all relevant stakeholders in efforts to stigmatise, prohibit and eliminate nuclear weapons. To date, 127 states have made such a commitment, known as the Humanitarian Pledge.”


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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