We celebrate the magnificent life and mourn the passing of H. Jack Geiger, a co-founder of Physicians for Social Responsibility, who “redefined what it meant to be a physician,” on December 28, 2020.
“He felt it was our right and responsibility as doctors to ‘treat’ hunger, poverty and disparities in health care as directly and openly as we treat pneumonia or appendicitis,” said Dr. Irwin Redlener, co-founder of the Children’s Health Fund.
Physicians for Social Responsibility, an advocacy group, shared the 1985 Nobel Peace Prize for its efforts to end the nuclear arms race. The organization also advocates to end reliance on nuclear power as a peril to human health and safety.
As a youth, he worked as a copyboy for The New York Times, which called him a “Rabble Rouser for Justice” in its obituary. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/12/28/health/h-jack-geiger-dead.html
As a teenager, Dr. Geiger ran away from home to live in Harlem’s Sugar Hill section where he became deeply immersed in the culture of the Black community. Later as a student at the University of Wisconsin, he founded a chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality.
As a pre-med student at the University of Chicago, he encountered systemic racial discrimination against Black patients and Black medical students. He helped organize a mass faculty/student protest strike in the late 1940s, one of the first of its kind.
As a result of his activism, he was blacklisted, his career placed in doubt.
Dr. Geiger persisted, participating in the 1964 “freedom summer” when he traveled to Mississippi to help care for civil rights workers. He joined the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama to provide medical care for the marchers.
He spent time in South Africa where he observed extreme poverty not very much different from what he observed among the poor in Mississippi.
Back in the U.S., he was criticized for dispensing food to poor people from government-issued pharmacy funds.
“Well, the last time I looked in my medical textbooks, they said the specific therapy for malnutrition was food.”
The government got off his back after that retort.
As a founder of Physicians for Social Responsibility in 1961, he argued that official predictions of the effects of nuclear war minimized the number of casualties and the extent of destruction that would result. With a degree in epidemiology from the Harvard School of Public Health, he co-authored a seminal article in the New England Journal of Medicine on the medical costs of nuclear war.
The article called for physicians to “explore a new area of preventive medicine, the prevention of thermonuclear war.”
Thank you Dr. Geiger for your exemplary life.