Physicians for Human Rights began with an insight and a vision.
In 1981, Jonathan Fine, a primary care physician working at the North End Neighborhood Health Center in Boston, got a call from a Harvard history professor. Did he know a Spanish-speaking physician willing to fly to Chile on short notice who would lead a delegation seeking the release of three prominent physicians who had been "disappeared" by the brutal regime of General Augusto Pinochet?
The next week, Dr. Fine found himself before a military judge in Valparaiso who was literally trembling in the presence of the delegation. Within an hour, Dr. Fine's delegation was allowed entry to the prison to meet its Chilean colleagues, who had just emerged from the hands of the notorious CNI security forces. "They were psychologically terrorized," recalls Dr. Fine. "It was an awesome experience. Hearing these and other torture survivors who suffered unspeakable abuse changed my life. Their testimonies were riveting, and so outraged me that within a few years I left my medical practice to do this work full time."
The mission to Chile and Dr. Fine's subsequent participation in human rights delegations to Guatemala, the Philippines, and South Korea produced press conferences in front of presidential palaces, congressional testimony at home, flurries of letters, and the prompt release of many political prisoners. The three Chilean doctors were released five weeks after Dr. Fine's extraordinary visit.
Dr. Fine was convinced that direct witnessing, reporting, and advocacy could be very powerful. He also became keenly aware of a huge, untapped resource for the human rights movement — individuals with specialized skills who identify with and draw strength from co-professionals overseas. In 1983, he formed the American Committee for Human Rights as an entrepreneurial effort in human rights advocacy.
"I saw the tremendous impact individual advocates in this country could have… how we could change a government's behavior," recalls Dr. Fine. He also felt strongly that "as physicians we had a special responsibility to prevent the horror of torture and the degradation of our skills in the aid of the torturer.
He was not alone in this insight.
In 1985, Jean Mayer, then President of Tufts University, sent his medical school's chief pediatrician, Jane Green Schaller, to South Africa to examine children's health under apartheid. Witnessing brutality, illness, and depression in a society denied basic human rights, she returned to Boston transformed, with a passion to mobilize her colleagues and make a difference.
Robert Lawrence was a mentor to several generations of residents in internal medicine at Cambridge Hospital, a Harvard teaching facility with a well-known commitment to the under-served. Dr. Lawrence had spent time in Central and South America during the late 1960s conducting epidemiological studies. He was acutely aware of how politics and economic repression can affect health. After returning from a 1983 human rights mission to El Salvador sponsored by several groups, including the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences, he joined Dr. Fine and Eric Stover of the AAAS in an investigation in the Philippines.
Carola Eisenberg, Dean of Student Affairs at Harvard Medical School, came to the group with painful personal associations. Friends and relatives were murdered in her native Argentina's "dirty war." She, too, had participated in a human rights investigation, a 1983 delegation to El Salvador organized by the American Public Health Association.
In 1986, these doctors founded Physicians for Human Rights.