Nobel prize winning physician Dr. Eric Chivian will speak on the topic of climate change at Polly Hill Arboretum next Wednesday. He has devoted his career to addressing enviromental issues from a medical standpoint.

Nearly 50 years ago, Dr. Eric Chivian was freshly graduated from medical school and working in Washington, D.C. with the public health service. It was 1971 and the future had arrived. As spacecraft traveled beyond Earth, aviation experts worked on new technologies for travel within our atmosphere.

The next frontier for commercial air travel was supersonic transport. Boeing planned to build a fleet to rival the Concorde, the British-French service that would later shuttle the jet set from New York to London in only three and a half hours. It was an ambitious and expensive undertaking. In 1971, Congress’s continued support for the government-funded project came up for debate.

Dr. Thomas Fitzpatrick, Chairman of the Department of Dermatology at Harvard Medical School and Dr. Chivian’s former professor, offered testimony against the project.

“This was before we knew about hydrofluorocarbons that would damage the ozone layer,” Dr. Chivian said, adding that it was 14 years before the discovery of the ozone hole over the Antarctic.

“But he had the understanding that the exhaust from the fleet of these planes would be damaging. And he was the world’s malignant melanoma expert. He testified that if we built these planes, we would damage the ozone layer, and cases of malignant melanomas... would skyrocket in the United States.”

Dr. Chivian continued: “He was the expert, and that was essentially the end of the SST program, that testimony.”

“I knew Tom, and the idea that a physician could turn around a program that was so important to U.S. national pride and would make billions, if not hundreds of billions of dollars for Boeing and other airline manufacturers and submanufacturers, was so compelling to me that I realized that physicians in some ways were the most important people in protecting the environment.”

Following this example, Dr. Chivian co-founded International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War in 1980. Five years later it won the Nobel Peace Prize.

Since the end of the Cold War, he turned his attention to global climate change or what he calls “Armageddon in slow motion.”

“Issues like climate change or the loss of biological diversity are so abstract and hard for people to understand or even to think about,” he said. “They’re so complicated scientifically... and they’re also hard to think about because they are frightening and unpleasant. Providing a medical perspective makes these issues more concrete, it makes them personal, and it discusses them in everyday language.”

One example Dr. Chivian will highlight in his upcoming lecture is forest fragmentation and the attendant loss of biodiversity, which has led to increased rates of tick-borne illness in humans.

“The main purpose of this talk is to illustrate the level of danger we are in to mobilize people to do more than they are already doing to address that danger by making the threat more comprehendible.”

Dr. Chivian will present Global Environmental Threats, and How Medical Models Can Help Us Understand Them on July 26 at 5:30 p.m. Tickets are $10 for general admission and $5 for Polly Hill Arboretum and Vineyard Conservation Society members.