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Dr. Bernard Lown latest subject of "Americans Who Tell the Truth" portrait series

Emma Lown (left), grandchild of Dr. Bernard Lown, and artist Robert Shetterly (right) unveil the portrait of Dr. Bernard Lown, the latest subject of "Americans Who Tell the Truth."
Kaitlyn Budion
Maine Public
Emma Lown (left), grandchild of Dr. Bernard Lown, and artist Robert Shetterly (right) unveil the portrait of Dr. Bernard Lown, the latest subject of "Americans Who Tell the Truth."

The late Dr. Bernard Lown, the pioneering cardiologist and Nobel-prize winning advocate for social change lived in Lewiston as a boy and has said the experience helped to shape the person he became. Lown, who died in 2021, is the latest subject of an ongoing series of portraits recognizing courageous citizenship called "Americans Who Tell the Truth."

Artist Robert Shetterly said his series focuses on individuals who have encouraged others to achieve the true ideals of democracy, and that Lown is a prime example of that.

"He thought that his primary duty as a healer was to save the world from destroying itself, to actually save, not just a person at a time, but whole countries at a time, in fact, all species at a time," Shetterly said.

Lown was born in Lithuania in 1921, and his family immigrated to the United States when he was 14, to escape antisemitism and the growing Nazi movement. The family settled in Lewiston, where Lown attended high school, and went on to study zoology at the University of Maine.

At the unveiling of his portrait Friday in Lewiston, University of Maine President Joan Ferrini-Mundy said that while she never met Lown, his influence is still recognized on campus.

"He wanted to make a difference in the world, and he did, he inspired our students to make their own paths," she said. "And in his words, he saw people as the ultimate arbiters of their own destinies."

Lown continued his studies at Johns Hopkins medical school, becoming a cardiologist, and played a hand in developing numerous medical milestones. He was one of the inventors of the defibrillator, organized one of the first coronary care units to prevent heart rhythm disorders and founded SATELLIFE, an organization that used satellites to provide medical information to doctors in other countries.

But to Lown, medicine was more than just treating physical ailments. He often spoke of the need to address social and economic issues that contributed to health problems, as he did in a 2008 interview with Maine Public Television.

"Well, I think they're not separate, I think if you care for a person as a patient you must care for the survival of humankind," Lown said at the time.

Lown went on to found Physicians for Social Responsibility and International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, both aimed at stopping the spread of nuclear weapons and the threat of nuclear war.

Emma Lown, the youngest grandchild of the Lown family, also spoke at the portrait unveiling in Lewiston:

"This exhibit is the embodiment of who he was — always concerned with how we could do better as people for the betterment of ourselves, our family, our community and the world," she said.

Emily Cain, a former Maine state senator and friend of Lown's, said he was the first person to tell her she should go into politics. And he continued to push her to make a difference throughout their friendship. She recalls a speech he gave in 1992, to the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War.

"At the end of his remarks, he says finally, 'I continue to brim with pessimism about the past, which no one can alter. My optimism for the future remains undiminished, since we can help shape it,'" she said.

In recognition of Lown's contributions to medicine and world peace, the bridge connecting Lewiston and Auburn was renamed the Bernard Lown Peace Bridge in 2008. In the same interview with Maine Public Television, Lown said he sees it as a symbol of his life's work.

"Symbolic in the sense that my aim was always to connect," he said. "To connect human beings with one another...the patient and the doctor ... the Soviet with the American ... the poor world with the rich world ... to create bridges ... its emblematic of what my life was always about."

The full Americans Who Tell the Truth gallery can be found online at Americans Who Tell The Truth, and the Bates Mill in Lewiston will host the collection in November.

Kaitlyn Budion is Maine Public’s Bangor correspondent, joining the reporting team after several years working in print journalism.