In 1981, Dr. Jonathan Fine, a Boston-based physician, received a request to fly to Chile to investigate the fate of three prominent Chilean physicians who had been “disappeared” under the brutal regime of General Augusto Pinochet.
Dr. Fine’s delegation was granted almost immediate access to the physicians, whom they concluded had been psychologically tortured. The Chilean physicians were freed five weeks after the team’s visit, but Fine was so outraged by their testimonies that he decided he would leave his medical practice to dedicate himself full-time to defending human rights. In 1986, he joined forces with fellow doctors John Constable, Carola Eisenberg, Jack Geiger, Jane Green Schaller, and Robert Lawrence to found Physicians for Human Rights.
One month after PHR’s formation, Dr. Constable was called upon to provide emergency medical assistance in Chile in what he described as “a particularly revolting episode.” Chilean military police had arbitrarily apprehended two teenagers in a poor Santiago neighborhood, beat them, set them aflame, and dumped them on the side of the rode of a small village. One of the two teenagers died before Dr. Constable, a burn specialist, arrived. Dr. Constable pressured the Chilean authorities to transfer the other teenager to a specialized burn treatment center in Santiago, where Chilean physicians, in consultation with Constable, supervised her gradual recovery. This case demonstrated that medical professionals could use clinical skills and political activism to aid the victims of human rights violations.
In 1988, PHR published the report “Sowing Fear: the Uses of Torture and Physiological Abuse in Chile” after four years of research and investigations in Chile. According to the report, torture had become a more scientific process over the previous decade and medical examinations of victims had been incorporated routinely into government agencies’ torture programs. Additionally, vigilante torture and death squads had been relied on to a greater degree as a means of controlling and intimidating opposition activists. The report also described the cases of physicians and other health professionals who had been harassed, imprisoned, tortured, and killed by Chile’s security forces.