Dr. Bernard Lown, a Lewiston native and University of Maine graduate who invented the first effective heart defibrillator and went on to win a Nobel Peace Prize as part of a group campaigning against the nuclear arms race, died Tuesday at the age of 99, according to an obituary published by the New York Times.
Lown, born to a Jewish family in Lithuania in 1921, immigrated to Maine in 1935, ahead of World War II. In Maine, his father ran a shoe factory in Pittsfield, and Lown spent his teen years in Lewiston, where he graduated from high school in 1938.
Lown attended UMaine, where he received a bachelor’s degree in zoology, and later went to Johns Hopkins University for his medical degree.
According to the New York Times obituary, he and his wife, his cousin and fellow Lewiston native Louise Lown, later settled in the Boston area, where in 1962 he developed his groundbreaking method of correcting abnormal heart rhythms with an invention, a defibrillator, that sends precisely timed jolts of electricity to the heart to “reset” its normal rhythm. That technology made open-heart surgery possible, and paved the way for pacemakers and defibrillators that are now implanted directly in patients’ chests.
Lown also became known internationally for his work with International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, an organization founded in 1980 by Lown and six other physicians, including Dr. Yevgeny I. Chazov, a Russian cardiologist and personal doctor to the Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev. The group, which campaigned against nuclear testing and the nuclear arms race, had attracted more than 135,000 international members when it was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1985.
In addition to his work on defibrillation treatment and against nuclear arms, Lown also discovered other treatments for heart conditions, including the fact that stress and lack of sleep can play a role in causing abnormal heart rhythms, and that nitrous oxide, or laughing gas, can ease the pain of heart attacks.
He also founded two nonprofits, SatelLife USA and ProCor, which use satellite and internet technology to assist doctors in developing nations, and was a founder of the Lown Institute, a Boston-based think tank that works to make the American health care system more just and equitable.
According to the New York Times, Lown wrote several books and hundreds of research articles, and was honored with a number of awards, including UNESCO’s Peace Education Prize and the Gandhi Peace Prize. He retired in 2000 as professor of cardiology emeritus at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
At the University of Maine, the college’s Alumni Humanitarian Award is named for Lown, an award for which he was the inaugural recipient in 1988. For many decades, he and his family spent their summers in Maine.
In 2008, then-Maine Gov. John Baldacci renamed the bridge crossing the Androscoggin River between Lewiston and Auburn the Bernard Lown Peace Bridge. At a ceremony to rename the bridge, Lown credited a doctor in Lewiston when he was a child, Dr. Max Hirshler, for inspiring him to go into medicine.
“I concluded that doctors were the cultural vanguard of civilization,” Lown said, according to the Lewiston Sun Journal.
Lown is survived by three children, Anne, Fredric and Naomi Lown; five grandchildren; and one great-grandchild. His wife, Louise, died in 2019.