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Hopkins History Moments

Orthopaedic surgeon and epidemiologist James Cobey, left, and cardiologist James Muller both graduated in the School of Medicine’s Class of 1969.

Hopkins History Moments

Neil A. Grauer tells the story of two medical school classmates whose work led to separate Nobel Peace Prizes.

The West Point alumni of 1915 were referred to as the Class the Stars Fell On, because more than a third of its 169 members — including Dwight D. Eisenhower — became generals.

You might consider the 1969 class of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine to be the Class the Olive Branches Fell On: Work by two of its members led to separate Nobel Peace Prizes.

Cardiologist James Muller is among the founders of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW), which won the 1985 Nobel Peace Prize. Orthopaedic surgeon and epidemiologist James Cobey, a member of Physicians for Human Rights, conducted research that led to creation of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL) — which won the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize.

In the 1960s, Johns Hopkins encouraged medical students to take a six-month elective period to expand their experiences. Muller, who chose to spend time in the Soviet Union as a medical exchange student, remembers watching hydrogen bombs strapped to trucks trundle through Moscow’s Red Square. The sight haunted him for years, he told The New York Times in 2003. The image of these mammoth, ultimate weapons of mass destruction embedded in his mind so vividly that he suffered nightmares about nuclear war — and he felt compelled to do something to prevent the planet’s destruction.

In 1980 — when the world still was gripped by the Cold War — he became one of four Americans, along with three similarly dedicated physicians from the Soviet Union, to co-found IPPNW. The group conducted research on the devastating medical consequences of nuclear war and the wasteful economic impact of producing nuclear weapons. IPPNW also wrote books and articles, held international conferences and — in the words of the late David Lange, then prime minister of New Zealand — “made medical reality a part of political reality.”

By the end of the Cold War in 1991, some 200,000 physicians, health care workers and other concerned citizens throughout the world were involved in IPPNW’s activities. In 2007, it launched the 2017 Nobel Prize-winning group, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, which involves more than 420 nongovernmental organizations in 95 nations.

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Award-Winning Work Rooted in War

James Cobey’s Nobel-winning efforts began in 1991 when he joined members of Physicians for Human Rights on a six-week investigative mission to Cambodia. The group studied the horrific impact of the immense concentration of hidden land mines strewn along the border of Cambodia and Thailand during Cambodia’s decades-long civil war.

Long active in humanitarian causes and already working with the International Committee of the Red Cross, Cobey conducted intensive studies — including a review of two years of surgical data on the injuries that land mines caused — which led to his co-authorship of the influential report, “Land Mines in Cambodia: The Coward’s War.” It is estimated that mines had injured one in every 236 Cambodians  — a figure that applied only to people who were hospitalized.

 

In 1992, Human Rights Watch, Physicians for Human Rights and other organizations formed the ICBL, the campaign in which Cobey was such a significant participant. Five years later, many nations adopted and signed the Ottawa Convention, a mine ban treaty that helped secure the Nobel Prize for the ICBL.

To date, 162 countries have signed the Ottawa Convention. The United States, Russia and China are among those that have not.

In 2014, the Obama administration pledged to destroy most of the U.S. stockpile of 3 million land mines and not deploy them — except along the 38th parallel, which separates North and South Korea. They are deemed essential to South Korea’s safety.

For Cobey, that is not enough. In a 2017 interview with Physicians for Human Rights, he observed that military leaders in other nations say the U.S. has the best military in the world, and if the United States won’t sign the mine ban treaty, they won’t either.

“Our efforts have certainly saved lives,” Cobey said, “but our work isn’t finished yet.”

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