Intended for healthcare professionals


Bernard Lown: a principled life

BMJ 2021; 372 doi: (Published 02 March 2021) Cite this as: BMJ 2021;372:n583
  1. Jeanne Lenzer
  1. New York, USA
  1. jeanne.lenzer{at}


Photo credit: Boris Spremo, Toronto Star, Getty images

The remarkable achievements of Bernard Lown, a renowned cardiologist and activist, have been catalogued in numerous obituaries since he died. For a list of his awards and accomplishments, the New York Times obituary is instructive.

But what is missing from virtually all obituaries are the principles that drove him and how his stands would cost him dearly.


Lown, most often noted for co-inventing the modern cardiac defibrillator, kept a letter of gratitude from a Cleveland Clinic surgeon who thanked him for his invention. Without the defibrillator, surgeons didn’t have a reliable way to restart a patient’s heart after surgery—with it, the floodgates for heart surgeries were opened.

Lown would come to rue this widespread use of his own invention. Convinced that love of technology and profits were driving unnecessary heart surgeries, he studied 171 patients who were told they needed surgery and came to him for a second opinion. He reported his results in 1992 in the Journal of the …

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