Herbert L. Abrams


Herbert Leroy Abrams, physician, researcher, author, and activist, died peacefully at home in Palo Alto, California, on January 20, 2016, surrounded by family. He was 95.

His illustrious, multi-faceted career included what he called the “four dimensions of bio-medicine” — patient care, research, teaching, and activism.  

He loved the Vineyard. For 45 years he and his wife, Marilyn, spent summers here. They first came when they moved from California to Boston in 1967. In 1975 they asked their son John to design and build a house for them on Middle Road in Chilmark. When he and then business partner Mitchell Posin completed the house, it was the beginning of a longtime family gathering place and the beginning of South Mountain Company, too.

In the early Vineyard days Herb and Marilyn and their group of friends could usually be found at the cocktail hour gathered on Squibnocket Beach, chewing the fat, enjoying the beauty and each other, and solving the world’s problems.  

Last summer, he celebrated his 95th birthday in the Middle Road house with his children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren. Before dinner there was a game of four generations tennis. He still had the sweetest strokes.

Born in 1920 in New York to immigrant parents, he declined to join the family hardware business, graduated from Cornell University in 1941, and earned his medical degree at Long Island College of Medicine in 1946. He planned to become a psychiatrist, but when he discovered internal medicine he was captivated by radiological imaging, which provided the road map for virtually all surgical and many medical therapies.

Drawn to the West and recruited by Stanford Medical School, he and Marilyn and daughter Nancy moved to San Francisco in 1948. They raised their two children, Nancy and John, in the Bay Area while Herb rose to become Director of Diagnostic Radiology at Stanford Medical Center. He called these years “the golden years,” rich with deep friendships, youthful exuberance, guitar-playing, family adventures, and professional success.

In 1967, with their children pursuing their own paths, he and Marilyn moved to Boston where he became the Philip H. Cook Professor of Radiology at Harvard Medical School and radiologist-in-chief at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and the Dana Farber Cancer Center. The intellectual environment of Boston invigorated him and he devoted himself to building a great radiology department, a new research institute, and an outstanding teaching center.  

This is when he and his family became captivated by the Vineyard. Today his son, his daughter-in-law, two of his grandchildren, and all three of his great grandchildren live on the island.

Toward the end of the Harvard years — he and Marilyn moved back to Stanford in 1985 — he developed a keen interest in the effects of ionizing radiation and nuclear weapons, and the problems of accidental or inadvertent nuclear war, which led to the next phase of his career as an anti-nuclear activist.

He was the Founding Vice President of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War and the recipient of the 1985 Nobel Peace Prize. He served on the national board of directors of Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR) for 20 years and was a national co-chairman during the 1980s.  

PSR believed that the medical community could in no way cope with the destruction caused by a massive nuclear exchange — there is no cure, only prevention — and Herb, with his eternal optimism, felt that PSR could make a difference. They did. He said at the time, “I believe that you and I can make a difference, both as individuals and as part of a collective entity that shares the values and vision of a world of peace.”

He was an internationally known authority on cardiovascular radiology and wrote over 190 articles and seven books on cardiovascular disease and health policy. For many years he served as Editor-in-Chief of postgraduate Radiology,  and he was founding Editor-in-Chief of the journal “Cardiovascular and Interventional Radiology.”

In 1961, he published Angiography, the first comprehensive volume on the subject. A second edition appeared in 1971, and the third as a three-volume work in 1983. The fourth edition, edited by Stanley Baum, M.D. and now titled Abrams’ Angiography: Vascular and interventional Radiology, was released in 2000.

He returned to Stanford in 1985 as Professor of Radiology and spent most of his time in research at the Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC), working to link various disciplines and philosophies in the political, international and academic arenas to create a better understanding of international security during the nuclear age.  

In the 1990s he began to focus on presidential disability and its potential impact on decision-making. In 1992 he published, The President Has Been Shot: Disability, Confusion and the 25th Amendment, which brought together important issues at the intersection of medicine, politics, and humanism.

Near the end of his long life, he wrote about the effects of aging, not only on leaders but also on himself. He lived vigorously — a life defined by deep compassion, rigorous inquiry, tireless work, and a rich family life. He continually made new friends, young and old, even in the last years of his life.

CISAC co-director Amy Zegart said Herb “was vibrant to the end,” attending seminars and “asking hard-hitting questions.”

“He had an incredible mind and an incredible heart, and I think everybody saw both things in him, which is why he was such a bedrock of our community for such a long time,” Zegart said.

Always at the core of his life was bringing together his family to travel, to ski, to play tennis, to celebrate birthdays and holidays. He could never get enough of these gatherings.  

And he was always exhilarated by the rich stew of social and cultural life he found on the Vineyard. It became an essential part of his identity.

Herb is survived by his wife of 73 years, Marilyn, and his daughter Nancy (Richard Eilbert) and son John and daughter-in-law Chris, in addition to three grandchildren: Pinto and Sophie Abrams, and Natasha Eilbert; and three great grandchildren: Kalib, Silas, and Axel Abrams.

Memorial donations in memory of  Herb Abrams may be made to Physicians for Social Responsibility, 1111 14th St. NW, #700, Washington, DC 20005 or www.PSR.org.

A service to celebrate his life will be held on the Stanford campus on March 19, 2016.