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SCIENCE IN THE NEWS — The Lives of Peter Safar and Louis Lasagna - 2003-08-18

Broadcast: August 19, 2003



I’m Bob Doughty with Sarah Long, and this is the VOA Special English program, SCIENCE IN THE NEWS.


This week -- the medical world loses two important doctors after long and successful careers. We tell about their lasting influences on medicine.



An American doctor who developed emergency first-aid methods used around the world had died. Peter Safar [SA-fer] was seventy-nine years old and had cancer. He died at his home near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Doctor Safar was known as "the father of C-P-R." CPR is cardiopulmonary resuscitation. It is a series of steps in an effort to restart a person's heart and lungs. Almost anyone can learn CPR.

Peter Safar was born in Austria in nineteen-twenty-four. He briefly studied medicine at the University of Vienna and at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. He completed his studies at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. He trained in anesthesiology. He learned how to prevent pain from operations and other treatments. After he completed his training, he spent two years at the National Cancer Institute in Lima, Peru.


Doctor Safar had wanted to become a surgeon. He wanted to perform operations. However, he came to believe that not enough was known about more basic life-saving methods. He began research in this field in the late nineteen-fifties.

Doctor Safar perfected what is now called the ABCs of CPR. ABC is an easy way to remember, in order, the three steps of cardiopulmonary resuscitation.

"A" is for airway. The first step is to clear the victim’s breathing passages. You press down on the top of the head with one hand and lift under the chin with the other.

"B" stands for breathing. The rescuer closes the victim's nose with two fingers, then provides air mouth-to-mouth. The rescuer blows into the lungs with slow, full breaths -- in combination, if necessary, with step C.

"C" is for circulation. This is done if the heart has stopped. The rescuer places one hand over the other on the middle of the victim's chest. Then, with fingers locked together, the rescuer presses down firmly and quickly. A series of compressions like this forces blood through the heart and to the brain.

People who learn CPR are taught to pump at a rate of eighty to one-hundred compressions per minute. After fifteen compressions, the rescuer stops and gives two more full breaths to refill the lungs. Compressions and breaths continue until the heart has restarted or medical help has arrived.

If the heart has started again but the victim still does not breathe normally, then only rescue breaths continue. The rescuer gives one breath every five seconds.

CPR can be done by one person or two. The important thing is to begin CPR quickly. A victim can suffer permanent brain damage after four minutes without oxygen. A few minutes later the victim can die.

CPR is used by emergency workers, but also by the general public. Groups like the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies teach CPR. The training can be done in just a few hours.


Peter Safar leaves behind his wife, Eva, along with two sons, and their five children. He earned the title of Distinguished Professor of Resuscitation Medicine at the University of Pittsburgh.

In nineteen-seventy-nine he established the International Resuscitation Research Center at the school. In nineteen-ninety-four it was renamed. It is now the Safar Center for Resuscitation Research.

Doctor Safar had many other successes in medicine. He helped develop intensive care units in hospitals. These are where the sickest or most severely injured people are treated.

Doctor Safar helped design the modern emergency-medical vehicle, along with training for the people who operate them.

He was also a peace activist with groups such as Physicians for Social Responsibility.

In later years, he researched the effects of cooling the bodies of people who have just survived a heart attack. There is evidence that immediate cooling may help prevent brain damage. Recent studies have added to this evidence.


Doctor Safar knew tragically what could happen when the brain is starved of air.

In nineteen-sixty-six, his only daughter, Elizabeth, suffered an asthma attack. She stopped breathing. Her heart also stopped. Doctor Safar was able to return her heartbeat and breathing. But the lack of oxygen had already destroyed her brain, and she died. Elizabeth Safar was eleven years old.

Doctor Safar made it clear that he did not develop cardiopulmonary resuscitation by himself. He also named others who did important work.

There is no way to know exactly how many people have been saved by this emergency first-aid. But each year millions more all over the world learn the ABCs of CPR.



Another important doctor also died of cancer this month in the United States. His name was Louis Lasagna [la-ZHAN-ya], and he was eighty years old. He died in his hometown of Newton, Massachusetts.

Doctor Lasagna was a professor of pharmacology -- the science of how drugs affect living systems. He taught at Tufts University, in Boston, Massachusetts. Some call him the father of pharmacology. One Tufts professor says Doctor Lasagna’s work is found almost everywhere in the day-to-day work of pharmacologists.

His most influential work was an article that appeared in nineteen-fifty-four in the American Journal of Medicine. He wrote about a condition known as the "placebo effect."


A placebo is substance, usually in pill form, that does not contain any medicine. Yet Louis Lasagna showed that sometimes people improve even when they receive placebos.

Doctor Lasagna was concerned about the government process for approving drugs. He carried out a campaign to make approval more difficult. Doctor Lasagna argued that all drug testing should include the use placebos as a study control.

Doctor Lasagna appeared before a congressional committee to answer questions about the issue. The Food and Drug Administration and the drug industry made some major reforms as a result.


Today placebos are used throughout studies of experimental drugs. Some people in a study will receive the medicine being tested. Others will receive placebos. The people are not told which pill they are getting. At the end, the researchers compare the results from the two groups. They look to see if the drug being tested did any better or worse than the placebo.

In nineteen-ninety-seven, the editor of the British magazine The Lancet honored Doctor Lasagna's article. The editor included it on a list of the world's twenty-seven most notable medical developments since the time of Hippocrates. Hippocrates was an influential Greek doctor who lived more than two-thousand years ago.


Louis Lasagna was from New York City. He went to Rutgers University in New Jersey. Later, he returned to New York City to attend medical school at Columbia University. He received his degree in nineteen-forty-seven.

Doctor Lasagna taught at top medical centers, including the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore, Maryland. And, his lessons went beyond just the science of medicine. Doctor Lasagna trained students to seek an emotional understanding of each patient. He believed it was important for doctors to remember that they treat human beings -- not diseases.

He included that thinking when he wrote a new version of the Hippocratic Oath in nineteen-sixty-four. The Hippocratic Oath is the traditional promise that doctors make when they receive their degree from medical school.

Louis Lasagna's version, which many schools accepted, calls on doctors to employ sympathy and understanding in dealing with the sick. The oath says doctors should recognize the reach of disease. They should recognize that sickness can hurt not only the patient, but the patient’s family and economic situation, too.

Doctor Lasagna’s version also calls on doctors to work to prevent disease. It says prevention is always better than cure.

Doctors Lasagna wrote a lot of other things, too, during his fifty-year career. These include two books that he wrote during the nineteen-sixties: "The Doctors' Dilemma" and "Life, Death and the Doctor."

Louis Lasagna is survived by his wife, Helen Gersten, seven children and eight grandchildren.



SCIENCE IN THE NEWS was written by Caty Weaver. It was produced by Cynthia Kirk. This is Sarah Long.


And this is Bob Doughty. Join us again next week for more news about science in Special English on the Voice of America.