In Memoriam: Dr. Victor W. Sidel, PSR Founding Member January 31, 2018

Dr. Sidel has inspired so many of us in our work for peace, social justice, and health equity. Click here to read PSR members’ tributes to Dr. Sidel.

Victor W. Sidel, MD, a visionary medical leader and founding member of Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR), died on January 30, 2018 in Greenwood Village, Colorado. Dr. Sidel’s 60 years of advocacy invigorated the American medical and public health communities for the cause of peace and nuclear disarmament.

Dr. Sidel founded PSR in 1961 after meeting Dr. Bernard Lown, a cardiologist at Harvard University. He inspired physicians and health professionals to take responsibility to prevent nuclear war. In a 2013 interview with Social Medicine, Dr. Sidel said, “I want to prevent the wounds, not simply treat them.” Dr. Sidel contributed to a series of articles on the medical consequences of nuclear war that were published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1962. These articles spurred the formation of PSR chapters across the country.

Drs. Jack Geiger, Victor Sidel, and Sidney Alexander at the 1985 Nobel Prize ceremony

Later, Dr. Sidel became a co-president of PSR’s global affiliate, International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW), recipient of the 1985 Nobel Peace Prize for achieving the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. Dr. Sidel also served as president of the American Public Health Association (APHA) during the height of the nuclear freeze movement. When Dr. Sidel was APHA president, he established precedent by calling the prevention of nuclear war a public health priority during the APHA annual meeting.

Dr. Sidel was the author of numerous books and articles about the human consequences of war, international health, and the impact of poverty and deprivation on health and well-being. He was coeditor with Dr. Barry Levy of War and Public Health, Terrorism and Public Health, and Social Injustice and Public Health, all published by Oxford University Press.

Dr. Sidel was chair of the Department of Social Medicine at Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx, New York from 1969-1985. He then became Distinguished University Professor of Social Medicine at Montefiore and the Albert Einstein College of Medicine.

Graveside services will be held at Temple Ohabei Shalom Cemetery, 147 Wordsworth Street, East Boston, Massachusetts on February 4, 2018 at 11:30 a.m.

In lieu of flowers, remembrances may be made to Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR) or to International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW).

PSR Member Tributes

Dr. Victor Sidel has inspired so many of us in our work for peace, social justice, and health equity. PSR members from across the country reached out to share their memories of Dr. Sidel.

You can read Dr. Sidel’s obituary in the New York Times here.
Vic was a powerful advocate for all aspects of our message about the need to eliminate nuclear weapons, but he stood out as our greatest champion of the social justice dimension of our work. Perhaps his most singular contribution was the development of our message about the social and economic consequences of spending on nuclear weapons, what Vic called “Destruction before Detonation.” He created an incredibly eloquent talk about the ways that the arms race was diverting funds that were urgently needed to house, educate, and provide medical care to people in this country and around the world. At the beginning of his speech he turned on a metronome, set, I believe, to one beat every 2 seconds, and explained that every time the metronome ticked, somewhere in the world, a child under the age of 5 died from totally preventable causes like diarrheal illness or malnutrition. And he left the metronome on for his entire talk.  It was like a water torture–a few minutes into the talk everyone in the audience was inwardly squirming as the reality of this horrible, ongoing  loss of life was driven into our souls. And by the end of his presentation the evocation of this colossal crime was truly overwhelming. His death is a huge loss for all of us, but his voice will still be heard and his teachings will endure. Ira Helfand, MD, PSR board member, IPPNW co-president Northampton, Massachusetts
To PSR and the family of Victor Sidel. I want to give my condolences to Vic’s personal family and to his PSR family.  When I was a board member and delegate to PSR and IPPNW in the 1980’s I spent much time interacting with Vic. To me he was a model physician and citizen of the world.  I learned much just being in his presence and I will never forget his influence on me. Stanley Nudelman, MD, PSR member Corvalis, Oregon
It is hard to fully express how influential Victor Sidel was to my life and work. I was so fortunate to meet Vic at Einstein Medical School soon after he and Ruth had returned from their groundbreaking delegation to China. It was a time, similar to now, when our country seemed to be run by people hell-bent on destroying the planet in the midst of the Indochina war, and supporting vicious dictatorships around the world. In this context, in our Community Medicine course in 1973, Vic instilled in us the fundamental precepts of “serving the people,” a public health perspective that remained fundamental to my own work as a physician, to provide a model to be a real human being. It made an enormous difference to me to be exposed to the lessons of “Billions for Band-Aids,” and other materials Vic presented to us that underscored the impacts of issues of economic and social justice on the health of the communities we serve. It was Vic who put me in touch with some of the authors of “Billions for Band-Aids” when I moved to California in 1976, connecting me with a community of physicians and other health professionals dedicated to making fundamental progressive change in our country, a path that ultimately led me to my work in PSR. In the mid-1980s, soon after IPPNW received the Nobel Peace Prize, I reconnected with Vic just as he was completing his term as the President of APHA, and when over 400 of us at the APHA annual meeting in Las Vegas demonstrated at the Nevada Test Site against the testing of nuclear weapons, the first of many demonstrations that culminated in the US joining the Soviet Union in a moratorium by the early 1990s. This led me directly to my joining the SF – Bay Area chapter of PSR, and as well initiated my close collaboration with Vic within the work of the APHA Peace Caucus, whereby we partnered on numerous policies on nuclear weapons, and the related context of militarism which advanced the work of PSR within the public health community for the ensuing decades. In all of this work, Vic remained an incredible teacher to me and all others he influenced. I was always blown-away by his mastery of all the material in the extraordinary slideshows he presented to new generations of medical students, underscoring the social justice issues that form the fundamental framework for understanding the directions of US foreign and military policy — whether it be issues of nuclear weapons, global military projection on warfare, or the rampant environmental degradation that persist to this day. In all of his work, Vic presented, with utmost clarity, a profound knowledge of the issues, embedded within a scientific rigor that made a lasting impression on all he met. And, as many other people have commented, Vic always remained down-to-earth and gracious, always publicly recognizing anybody who had contributed to organizing a meeting, a demonstration, whatever. This made a lasting impression on all who were privileged to know him. The other thing that stands out to me was Vic’s enormous courage in speaking “truth to power” in challenging political times. I was privileged to work closely with Vic, and colleague Hillel Cohen, in the post-9/11 era of “fear and loathing.” During opening of what has been an endlessly bloody “war on terror,” we challenged the “bioterrorism” policies of our government that culminated in spending over $70 billion for programs that purported to defend our country against biological weapons, while instead providing the basis for weakening the Biological Weapons Convention, and permitting the development of technologies and infrastructure creating the basis for developing new offensive weapons in the name of “defense.” We were all rather marginalized at the time, pointing out the deleterious impacts of these programs that essentially diverted resources from more fundamental public health programs, including TB screening of vulnerable populations. But we think our work had a real impact in derailing the ill-founded smallpox immunization campaign of the Bush Administration that was more about preparing our population for “unconventional warfare” than truly protecting our people, and I remain very proud of our collaboration on this work. I remain equally grateful for having had the opportunity to work with Vic and colleague Dr. Barry Levy in contributing chapters on nuclear weapons and biological weapons to their extraordinary and comprehensive editions of “War and Public Health,” and “Terrorism and Public Health,” which remain key resources for all those striving to understand the full impacts of militarism on global health and which inform our work in PSR. Through all of our work on this, my partner Patrice Sutton and I are so grateful for our long friendship with Vic and Ruth,  and getting to know their lovely family who keep their memory alive with their own wonderful contributions to the world. We cherish this relationship, and keep it close to heart, as we communicate the lessons we’ve learned from our extraordinary relationship to our students and grandsons who will be picking up the fight. How fitting to gather these thoughts together the day after high school students, fed up with the assault-weapon carnage in Florida and all the prior slaughters in our schools and neighborhoods, demonstrated with great courage at the White House, with plans to carry the struggle forward against the rotten system that devalues their lives in comparison with the profits of the arms industry. What better way to think of the legacy of Victor Sidel and all the other extraordinary founders of PSR. La Luta Continua! In Peace and Solidarity, Robert Gould, MD, PSR board member San Francisco, California
It was such an honor for the University of South Florida (USF) College of Medicine Student PSR leaders and faculty to host Dr. Sidel for the Dean’s Lecture in Sep 2010. The photo on left shows Dr. Sidel with Dr. Donna Petersen, Dean of the USF College of Public Health, and on the right, 3 SPSR students and myself as their advisor & mentor. What I always found so delightful about Dr. Sidel, besides his brilliance, humanity and years-long dedication to a more peaceful world…was how he “beamed” when around the students. You could see the joy he felt in his smile and eyes whenever he spoke with them. Dr. Sidel was a real treasure and he will be missed by all of us. PSR Florida wishes the best to Dr. Sidel’s family. Lynn Ringenberg, MD, FAAP, PSR board member Tampa, Florida
I’m flooded with memories of Vic in action through the years. It always felt like a great privilege to work alongside him. He was one of our most passionate and persuasive advocates. I’m glad he was with us long enough to see the U.N. adopt the ban treaty—a goal he campaigned continuously for, in one form or another, for half a century. Equally inspiring was the uniquely loving relationship that existed between him and Ruth. I will miss him greatly. Michael Christ, IPPNW Executive Director Malden, Massachusetts
Vic was so important to the movement and to everyone he worked with. He was not only brilliant, but a beacon of moral politics, a perceptive interpreter of current trends, a master tactician, a committed anti-racist, and a nice guy that everyone felt comfortable talking with even if they disagreed. He was an original erector of big tents designed to include all—and move us all to supporting progressive social change. We live in a world that he helped mold. For me, a kid of the 1960s, another giant has passed from the scene leaving us even more exposed and responsible for our own way in the world. It was an honor and pleasure to have known and worked with him. Peter Orris, MD, PSR Chicago member Chicago, Illinois
Vic was such an important mentor for me starting in med-school and on so many levels. His support through the years was both personal and professional, a dance he learned (and taught) so well. He will indeed be remembered as a giant in so many spheres, PSR/IPPNW, social medicine, human rights, and of course half of the Ruth and Vic power-duo. Missing him already. Tim Takaro, MD, MPH, MS, PSR member New Westminster, Canada
I am very sad with the passing of Victor Sidel, one of the world’s greatest leaders of public health and of the fight for the elimination of nuclear weapons, the greatest threat of humanity. For more than 30 years, my friendship with Victor, reflected in common works, comes to memory and is left as a legacy in the young leaders of IPPNW and public health. A whole generation is disappearing, it is the law of life… I thank the circumstances that made me live as it was. Now I walk in silence with the common books and breathe the perfume of wild plants. I want to get to the home of my children and grandchildren to show them the example of Victor Sidel and its teachings on the priorities for health or for the preparation for war (in his words) which is for sure the education for the culture of social responsibility. Thanks Victor! This December 31, if I am still alive, I will not receive by mail, your card with auguries of peace for the coming year. “Our life is a precious path towards peace and harmony.” Professor Ernesto Kahan MD, MPH, President of Israel IPPNW Cambridge, Massachusetts
He is a person who changed the world. Betty Winholtz, PSR member Morro Bay, California
Vic has always been a role model and major inspiration in my life and all that I do. I’ve treasured our encounters wherever they’ve occurred in many parts of the world and over many years. In our younger years I was able to encourage him to come out and give several lectures at the University and during related PSR events. He was always well received and respected by my colleagues and our students as well. When they made Vic they threw away the mold! He was truly a powerful and persuasive thinker and writer, and a unique force for peace and goodness in the world. His passing will leave a large hole in the fabric of the human family. We will miss him, his insights, energy, and his gentle humor. This truly marks the passing of an era. Maureen McCue, MD, PhD, former PSR board member, PSR Iowa Oxford, Iowa
I was in medical school at Tufts from ’76-’80. I was part of that first group of trained speakers to present the 40 slide presentation showing logically the insanity of even a limited nuclear war. I am sure we helped educate the public of this terrible future, yet my cynical self thinks we got the Soviet Union to back off by Reagan out spending them (while putting us into deficit spending).  I have continued to speak out and act to protect our ecosystem since, all these years.  Victor, Jack and Helen (Caldicott) were passionate and inspiring leaders. Joel Shapiro, MD, PSR member Venice, California
As an AECOM graduate, and former President of PSR/NYC,and member of the National Board in the 80s, to me it’s hard to tell which of Vic Sidel’s virtues were more important—his inspiring brilliance, his devotion to making the world safer from obliteration by nuclear war, a risk now rearing its head again, or his deep commitment to right the racial injustices constantly aimed at our African American sisters and brothers. His sense of humor and humility despite his massive contributions never failed to charm. My deepest condolences to his family, and to the PSR family. Vic is irreplaceable. Robert Kurtz, MD, PSR member Bronx, New York
In memory of Victor Sidel, an incredible human being, a true hero of mine, who I knew for more than 40 years. Richard Aronson, MD, PSR Member Amherst, Massachusetts
Vic and Ruth were a team, and an incredible source of inspiration, to not just me, but to countless others. It was because of Vic’s leadership that I got involved in community-based policy action, and learned how to build/transform/empower community from the community-up. Because of their inspiring leadership, I joined the American Public Health Association, and am on the APHA Executive Board today. To continue their legacy of leadership well into the future, I pledge to honor their lives, and celebrate their victories, by advancing peace, equity and justice. Elena Ong, MPH, PSR Member Los Angeles, California
Let me express all my personal sadness for the bad news of the passing of our dear colleague Victor Sidel. I knew him before our 1985 Nobel Peace Prize and I remember his warm counsels towards a young Italian colleague specialist in Hygiene and Preventive Medicine (oriented in Public Health). Particularly, I remember a common walking in 1986, during our IPPNW World Congress in Cologne, and all his strong trust in our global medical preventive action for nuclear disarmament and peace. I never will forget the brothern conversation between an authoritative american Universitarian teacher and a young Italian general practitioner as me. I always had him and his enthusiasm for preventive medicine as an ethical professional example during all my thirty-five years of duty for our IPPNW. Warm condolences for his sons, sons in law, and granchildren. I pray you to pass my condolences to them. Michele Di Paolantonio, AIMPGN (IPPNW Italy) Italy
Vic was as fine a human being as I’ve ever known.  I’ve been inspired by him ever since I first heard him speak at national PSR conferences in the 1980’s.  Whenever our paths crossed at PSR and IPPNW events, his clear thinking and passion for eliminating nuclear weapons, fueled by his deep commitment to social justice, set a high standard for us all.  As much as Vic will be missed by all of us, it’s good to know that his words will continue to challenge and encourage us to dig deeper within ourselves and to work harder to create the more peaceful and just world that he envisioned. Peter Wilk, MD PSR board member Portland, Maine

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