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Herbert L. Abrams

Herbert L. Abrams, MD

Senior Fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, Emeritus
Professor of Radiology, Emeritus
CISAC Faculty Member

Research Interests

nuclear weapons fuel and proliferation; effects of nuclear weapons; presidential disablility; biological effects of low-level radiation


Herb Abrams passed away at the age of 95 on January 20, 2016. To read his obituary, please click here.

Herbert Abrams is a professor of radiology, emeritus, at the Stanford School of Medicine and a Faculty Member at CISAC, where he directs the Project on Disabled Leadership. He was Professor and Director of Diagnostic Radiology at Stanford from 1960 to 1967, and was then appointed and served as Philip H. Cook Professor and Chairman of Radiology at Harvard University from 1967 to 1985. He returned to Stanford in 1985 as Professor of Radiology in order to spend most of his time in research in CISAC.

He has written numerous papers on human reliability in the nuclear forces, including "Sources of Human Instability in the Handling of Nuclear Weapons" (1986); "Who's Minding the Missiles?" (1987); "Human Reliability and the Handling of Nuclear Weapons" (1991); and "The Dimensions of Human Instability and Human Error in the Nuclear Forces"(1992). These papers were a product of an exhaustive study of impairment in the 100,000 or more involved in day-to-day operational responsibilities for nuclear weapons (published in a National Academy Press volume.) A more recent review of this problem appeared in Science and Global Security.

Another area of interest has been the effects of ionizing radiation and of nuclear weapons: "Medical Problems of Survivors of Nuclear War"(1983); "Medical Resource Need and Availability After Nuclear War" (1984); "The Fallout from Chernobyl" (1986); and "Nuclear Radiation in Warfare" (1989). These and many other articles have appeared in the New England Journal of Medicine, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, The Sciences, the Journal of the American Medical Association, Current Research in Peace and Violence, the Political Science Quarterly, Presidential Studies Quarterly, Political Psychology, Science and Global Security, and five books. His concern with proliferation and fuel for nuclear weapons was expressed in a study of "Security Issues in the Handling and Disposition of Fissile Materials" (1994).

Dr. Abrams' present focus is on presidential disability and its potential impact on decisionmaking. Recent papers on this topic are "Disabled Leaders, Cognition, and Crisis Decision Making" (1989); "Desert Storm? Or Thyroid Storm? An Inquiry" (1992); "Shielding the President from the Constitution: Disability and the 25th Amendment" (1993); "Presidential Health and The Public Interest" (1995); "The Vulnerable President and the 25th Amendment, with Observations on Guidelines, a Health Commission, and the Role of the President's Physician" (1995); "Bob Dole's Age and Health in the 1996 Election: Did the Media Let Us Down?" (1998); "Can the 25th Amendment Deal with A Disabled President? Preventing Future White House Cover-ups" (1999); and "The Court's Attack on the Presidency" (2000). His book, The President Has Been Shot: Disability, Confusion and the 25th Amendment (New York: W.W. Norton and Company) was published in 1992 and has been updated and republished in paperback (1994) by Stanford University Press.

He is also the author of many articles on the problems of accidental or inadvertent nuclear war, including "The Problem of Accidental or Inadvertent Nuclear Wars" (1987); "Inescapable Risk: Human Disability and Accidental Nuclear War" (1988); "Component Failure in the Military and Inadvertent Nuclear War" (1989); "Disability in Leaders, Cognition and Crisis Decision-making" (1990); "Strategic Defense and Accidental Nuclear War" (1992); and "The Dimensions of Human Instability and Human Error in the Nuclear Forces" (1993).

Dr. Abrams also has a keen interest in the effects of ionizing radiation and of nuclear weapons. This interest extends to the effects of low-level radiation, radioactive waste and its potential health effects, the health of workers in the nuclear industry, and human experimentation with radiation. His articles include "Medical Problems of Survivors of Nuclear War" (1983); "Medical Resource Need and Availability After Nuclear War" (1984); "The Fallout from Chernobyl" (1986); and "Nuclear Radiation in Warfare" (1989). In January 1995, Abrams appeared before the President's Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments at their for a full exploration not only of the hazards of such experiments but also of ethical context in which they were undertaken. In 1995-96, he served as one of the two American members of the International Blue Ribbon Panel on the Radiation Effects Research Foundation (RERF) in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The panel published its review and recommendations in late 1996. Abrams was appointed to membership on the National Academy of Sciences Committee on the Biological Effects of Low Level Ionizing Radiation (BEIR VII), for a multi-year project beginning in late 1999. In 2004 the committee issued its final report on cancer risk to humans following exposure to low-level radiation.

An internationally known authority on cardiovascular radiology, Dr. Abrams has written over 190 articles and seven books on cardiovascular disease and health policy, and was founding Editor-in-Chief of the journal Cardiovascular and Interventional Radiology. He served as the Editor-in-Chief of Postgraduate Radiology (1980-1999). A member of the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Science, he was also founding vice-president of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, recipient of the 1985 Nobel Peace Prize. He served on the National Board of Directors of Physicians for Social Responsibility for 20 years, and was also its National Co-Chairman during the 1980s. He is an Honorary Fellow of the Royal College of Radiology of Great Britain and the Royal College of Surgeons of Ireland. Abrams has been awarded the Gold Medal of the Association of University Radiologists, of the Radiological Society of North America, and most recently the 2000 Gold Medal from the Society of Cardiovascular and Interventional Radiology (SCVIR) in recognition of his lifetime achievements in cardiovascular radiology.

Stanford Affiliations