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Human Rights Physician

After leading a decades-long campaign against human rights abuses, Associate Dean Robert Lawrence was recently honored with the Albert Schweitzer Prize. (Photo: Howard Korn)

Months after investigating the disappearance of 13 physicians and medical students in war-ravaged El Salvador in 1983, Robert S. Lawrence, MD, was asked to join another human rights investigation. Still shaken by the work in El Salvador (where he had lived for two years in the late 1960s), Lawrence agreed to go to the Philippines to investigate the murder of two doctors because he was the only one of the prospective group who had relevant experience.

The two investigations sparked the beginning of a decades-long campaign by Lawrence to rally health professionals to direct their unique skills to protect human rights around the world. Lawrence, the Edyth H. Schoenrich Professor of Preventive Medicine and associate dean for professional practice and programs at the School, was chosen in October to receive the 2002 Albert Schweitzer Prize for Humanitarianism. The award cited his leadership in building a comprehensive health care system in North Carolina in the 1970s that served 65,000 people (mostly tenant farmers), co-founding Physicians for Human Rights (which has carried out more than 100 investigations in 40 countries since 1986), and establishing the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future in 1996. Given under the auspices of The Alexander von Humboldt Foundation and administered by Johns Hopkins, the Schweitzer prize has previously recognized Jimmy Carter, Marian Wright Edelman, and C. Everett Koop.

Through Physicians for Human Rights, Lawrence has investigated abuses, torture, and murder carried out in Chile during Augusto Pinochet’s reign, apartheid South Africa, communist Czechoslovakia, and in Egypt where the government persecuted left-wing intellectuals and extremist Islamic groups. “Health professionals are among the first to become aware that abuse is going on [by] treating patients who have been harassed or tortured,” says Lawrence, who recently served as the Physicians for Human Rights’ president. The group shared in the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize as one of the founding groups of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines.

Of the Schweitzer award, Lawrence says, “It was a wonderful, unexpected honor and a validation of the fact that health professionals can contribute to the protection of human rights.”

More accolades >

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