“I saw the tremendous impact … how we could change a government’s behavior, and [felt] that as physicians we had a special responsibility to prevent the horror of torture and degradation of our skills in the aid of torturers.”Dr. Jonathan Fine, Physicians for Human Rights co-founder
In 1981, Jonathan Fine, MD, a Boston-based physician, received a call from a Harvard professor asking if he knew a Spanish-speaking doctor willing to lead a delegation to Chile to win the release of three prominent physicians who had been “disappeared” by the brutal Pinochet regime. A week later, Dr. Fine was standing in a Chilean military court before a judge who was literally trembling in the presence of the U.S. delegation.
Within an hour, officials let the U.S. team meet the captives, who had endured physical abuse and psychological terror at the hands of the notorious Chilean security forces. Dr. Fine said that hearing about the torture these colleagues and others suffered changed his life. “Their testimonies were riveting and so outraged me that, within a few years, I left my medical practice to do this work full-time.” A few weeks after Dr. Fine’s trip, Chilean authorities released the three doctors and Dr. Fine became convinced that direct witnessing, reporting, and advocacy could be a mighty force for protecting and promoting human dignity.
In 1983, Dr. Fine formed the American Committee for Human Rights. His investigations in Guatemala, the Philippines, and South Korea sparked press conferences in front of presidential palaces, congressional testimony at home, and letters of protest, which resulted in the prompt release of many political prisoners. “I saw the tremendous impact … how we could change a government’s behavior, and [felt] that as physicians we had a special responsibility to prevent the horror of torture and degradation of our skills in the aid of torturers,” Fine concluded.
He was not alone in this insight.
Tufts University School of Medicine chief pediatrician Jane Green Schaller, MD was in South Africa to evaluate the health of children living under the racial tyranny of apartheid. First-hand exposure to a segregated society steeped in brutality and inured to the suffering of children transformed her. She returned to Boston determined to mobilize her colleagues in the service of vulnerable people, especially children, suffering chronic illness and depression borne of discrimination and hopelessness.
John Constable, a plastic surgeon and burn specialist at Massachusetts General Hospital had international experience in Colombia, Egypt, India, and Turkey. He also spent years working in Vietnam researching the medical effects of Agent Orange.
Robert Lawrence, MD, a mentor to generations of internal medicine residents at Cambridge Hospital, was also participating in human rights investigations at this time. Having conducted epidemiological studies in Central and South America during the late 1960s, Dr. Lawrence was intimately aware of how politics and economic repression can affect health. After returning from a trip to El Salvador in 1983, he traveled with Dr. Fine for an investigation in the Philippines. H. Jack Geiger, MD, a pioneer of the community health movement in the United States, joined them.
Dr. Geiger built his reputation in the 1960s serving a community of ex-sharecroppers at the first community health center in Mound Bayou, Mississippi, where he found many malnourished children. His response was to write prescriptions for food that the local grocer would bill back to the health center’s pharmacy. Soon, a federal official arrived to confront Dr. Geiger about using money meant for medical services on food. Dr. Geiger replied, “In my medical textbooks, the best therapy for malnutrition is food.” The official left him alone.
Carola Eisenberg, MD, a Harvard Medical School dean and activist whose friends and relatives had been murdered in her native Argentina’s “dirty war,” had also participated in the 1983 El Salvador investigation. Dr Eisenberg had been overwhelmed by the agony caused by state-sponsored violence and the devastation that attacks on health workers had wreaked.
Law professor Philip Alston was teaching at Harvard and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, and had recently been appointed to a rights-monitoring committee at the UN’s human rights office. He brought a unique legal expertise in human rights, one which would lead to a succession of senior UN appointments, including as Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, and Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights.
These visionaries shared the dream that a group of dedicated health professionals, through meticulous documentation, could prevent and demand accountability for the most serious human rights violations.
Together, in 1986, they founded Physicians for Human Rights.