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PHR Remembers its Founder, Dr. Jonathan Fine

Dr. Jonathan Fine

January 2018

Read here for The Lancet's obituary of Dr. Fine.

Dr. Jonathan Fine (1931-2018), who died in Cambridge, Massachusetts on January 17, 2018, was the founder and first executive director of Physicians for Human Rights (PHR). A primary care physician raised in Brookline, Massachusetts, Fine was already a student activist as an undergraduate at Swarthmore College, before going on to receive his medical training at Yale University and an MPH from Johns Hopkins University. Dr. Fine’s early activism and a Fulbright Fellowship in India following medical school positioned him well to be a pioneering medical leader in the human rights movement.

Dr. Fine established PHR in 1986 with a group of Boston physicians after three years of mobilizing groundbreaking human rights investigations into disappearances, torture, and political imprisonment in Chile, the Philippines, and South Korea. “Unfortunately, the field of advocacy and investigation is going to be absolutely essential as long as humanity and all its mischiefs are possible,” Fine said in a 2014 PHR interview. “We’re never going to be deprived of an opportunity to combat injustice.”

Dr. Fine set a standard of charging to the heart of a conflict – wherever survivors and victims of mass atrocities were – to gather scientific evidence of human rights abuses. “As physicians, we could and would actively seek all points of view before we’d draw any conclusions as to what the facts were, or any conclusions as to the assignment of responsibility for the abuse of individuals,” he said.

In 1981, Fine responded to an unusual call for a delegation of U.S. physicians to fly on short notice to Chile to press for the release of medical colleagues who were being held by the brutal regime of General Augusto Pinochet. “I was itchy that medical practice was no longer the great challenge for me,” he recalled later. “And three physicians [in Chile] had disappeared.” The testimonies of torture survivors were so riveting and left Dr. Fine so outraged that within a few years of the mission, he left his medical practice to do advocacy work full time.

The three Chilean doctors were released five weeks after Dr. Fine's extraordinary visit. A year later, while on a trip to Guatemala, Fine brazenly called a press conference on the steps of the Presidential Palace in Guatemala City to protest the disappearance of Dr. Juan José Hurtado. The Guatemalan doctor was released five days after Dr. Fine returned to the United States.

After founding PHR, Dr. Fine led numerous investigations, including into the massive use of tear gas in South Korea and the deployment of chemical weapons against Kurds in Iraq, and well as to Guatemala, the Occupied Palestinian Territory, and the Philippines – some of which resulted in the prompt release of political prisoners.

PHR Director of International Policy and Partnerships Susannah Sirkin, who was one of PHR’s founding staff members and who worked closely with Dr. Fine, described him as “A most visionary, tenacious, fierce, and generous human rights pioneer.”

Fine was so dedicated to the mission of PHR that he sold his house in order to fund staff salaries, office space, and the international investigations themselves in the early years.

“The passing of a trailblazer such as our beloved founder Dr. Jonathan Fine is a true loss to the human rights movement. Jonathan liked to find his own way in the world, and has undoubtedly paved a path for activist doctors to follow,” said PHR Executive Director Donna McKay.  

Among many honors, including an honorary doctorate from Swarthmore in 1993, Dr. Fine received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Greater Boston Labor Council in September 2001. 

Dr. Fine’s passion and dedication to serve was undiminished, even in retirement. In 2007, at age 75, Dr. Fine organized his retired colleagues and founded Bedside Advocates, to help elderly and frail patients navigate the complexities of the medical system. During the last decade of his life, Dr. Fine spent time in rural India working with medical colleagues in the conflicted Chattisgarh tribal region, supporting embattled doctors in their struggle against poverty and oppression. 

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