A Brief History of Oregon Physicians for Social Responsibility
By Joy Spalding, Ph.D., Oregon PSR Historian
Social responsibility is the recognition that as individuals and health care professionals, we have the task of responding to threats to society’s health and survival. The mission of Physicians for Social Responsibility is to help create a just, healthy and peaceful world.
Physicians for Social Responsibility brings a unique medical, scientific and public health perspective to health threats. Oregon PSR attacks a range of problems by working with the local community, as well as our national and international affiliates. PSR works at stopping the toxic degradation of the environment, guaranteeing safe and sustainable foods, and fighting the effects of global warming.
The national PSR group was founded in Boston in 1961 when cardiologists Victor Sidel and Bernard Lown, and epidemiologist Jack Geiger became aware of the nuclear threat. The group put together journal articles describing the biological, physical and psychological effects of a nuclear attack on Boston. They saw the need to educate the public, but saw the medical profession as the single group most deeply involved in the survival of mankind. They recognized that physicians were charged for the care of people in our communities, and that they would be called on to treat the victims of a nuclear attack. They also saw that physicians have a preventative role in our society.
PSR was energized in 1981 when doctors Bernard Lown and Eugenie Chazov organized the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW). The organization became “international” only after their meeting in Budapest in 1985.
Australian physician Helen Caldicott, then in training in Boston, joined PSR and was a vocal participant in public and professional education on nuclear threats. She seized on the issue of nuclear proliferation as a public health issue and a danger to the entire world. As a doctor, she had access to the medical community and preached a strong, compelling message. Attending medical meetings and publishing articles in medical journals, she and her followers spread the message. After hearing Dr. Caldicott speak, Dr. Karen Steingart brought the anti-nuclear message to Portland when she came here to finish her training at Good Samaritan Hospital.
During a protest march against cuts in Medicaid, Steingart walked beside Dr. Charles Grossman, a progressive physician who had long been active in the community. She told him about having heard Caldicott speak and how PSR had become, a vehicle in the medical community for educating and promoting action in the anti-nuclear movement. As they marched, Steingart and Grossman began the effort to organize local health care providers into what would become Portland PSR. Oregon PSR evolved as other new groups grew up around the state.
They talked with their friends and associates, often around a kitchen table, gathering informally and enjoying good fellowship in the process. The formal work of Portland PSR began with a retreat on July 7, 1982. They proposed to form a non-profit corporation with the purpose of educating physicians, health professionals and the public about the medical consequences of nuclear war.
The goals were to develop and maintain continued professional and public awareness of the health and social consequences of nuclear warfare. The plan was to have a cadre of trained speakers with quality control of the materials and information presented to the community. Educational conferences, publishing informational articles and a wide range of media were proposed as mechanisms to spread the message. The Oregon PSR’s bi-monthly newsletter, The Folded Crane, was created to be a major resource of information for members, other organizations, the public and lawmakers.
The membership drive began, focusing on physicians and other health care providers. With full support of the Nuclear Weapons Freeze movement, PSR emphasized the health effects of nuclear weapons and war to attract members. From a small cohesive group, they elected a president, two vice presidents, an executive committee, treasurer, and a secretary. The Board of Directors would be six of the physicians already in the new organization.
This formal organization followed a one-day symposium at Lewis & Clark College in April 1982. Organized by Christine Cassel and Michael McCally of the Department of Preventive Medicine at the University of Oregon Medical School, the conference featured well-known experts in the nuclear field and sought to educate the public about the effects of a nuclear attack on the Portland area. This underscored PSR’s value to the community by addressing growing public concerns. It was also a financial success for PSR, as the conference fees supported the costs of hiring a chapter director and establishing a staff office.
Chapters were also organized in Medford, Eugene and Corvallis, with some individual members residing in Bend. In the early 1990’s the decision was made to unite all groups into an Oregon chapter based primarily in Portland. Andy Harris from Salem was a very active member, becoming the President of the Oregon and National Chapters. He was followed later by Catherine Thomasson, M.D., who is now the Executive Director of the national organization.
PSR joined efforts with the IPPNW. Concerns about nuclear weapons proliferation had grown alongside the rise in professional concern with public health. The anti-nuclear movement had a strong appeal for health care providers who believed that the nuclear arms race must be controlled. IPPNW believed that they should be world leaders in abolishing nuclear weapons.
IPPNW meetings are held every four years in cities such as Budapest, Hiroshima, Moscow, Stockholm, Beijing and Mexico City. Small regional meetings are also held. Oregon members attend and take an active role as planners, speakers and officers.
Oregon PSR has long been involved in the monitoring of the Hanford nuclear site located on the Washington side of the Columbia River. Hanford is one of the worst nuclear waste disposal sites in the United States. PSR members testify at hearings and have played a major role in supporting and publicizing the cases of the “downwinders.” These are people living near Hanford who have had their health impacted negatively by this toxic site. The work began when physics professor Rudi Nussbaum and Dr. Charles Grossman published papers in peer-reviewed journals showing how the health effects of these nearby residents had been negatively affected.
Working with the Oregon legislature, PSR developed a state-wide school curriculum that included information on nuclear issues and related concerns. In 2011, for the third time, Oregon PSR has sponsored a statewide Peace Writing contest for high school juniors and seniors. The goal of these efforts is to make young people aware of nuclear issues and encourage them to learn how to take part in working for peace. The contest and its monetary prizes carry the name of PSR’s former Executive Director, peace activist Del Greenfield.
PSR committees have changed along with the issues that they have focused on over the years. Members of PSR may join working groups related to particular concerns. Working groups offer the opportunity to join others to study a specific issue and effect change.
There are currently three working groups to which PSR members may belong: Environmental Health, Nuclear Power and Weapons and Peace. Groups meet monthly or as needed, and enhance PSR’s capacity to educate the membership and the general public. Oregon PSR also operates several formal programs including the Campaign for Safe Food, Health Care without Harm and the Environmental Health Program.
The recent legislative effort to ban harmful BPA in plastics in consumer products such as baby bottles and sippy cups is an example of current PSR activism.
Over the years, Oregon PSR has fostered a range of activities that advance our mission of ensuring a healthy and peaceful world for all. PSR believes that understanding the issues will enhance our ability to reach these goals.