Robert M. Peck, MD

  • January 20, 2017 /

Robert M. Peck, MD, Honorary President, In Memoriam passed away on July 31, 2016.

Dr. Robert Peck is the honorary president in memoriam of the California Physicians Alliance. The following is a brief autobiography of a physician who dedicated his life to patient advocacy.

1926 was a great year to be born. I have been part of all that has happened since. From ’26 to 1934 we were living pretty well in Canton, Ohio. My father, Sam Peck, managed a department in the local department store. My parents were inordinately happy to have this only child. We had a maid, spent 3 winter months in Miami Beach, FL every winter. My Uncle Si, rented a big house and invited his four siblings and and their families to join him. My father voted for Hoover in 1932.

But our status came to a sudden end in ’34 when Sam Peck lost his job in the deepening Depression. We came to Los Angeles “to starve in the sunshine”. He became an ardent partisan of Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal. So did I, and I still am. I started my public career speaking for School Bonds when I was ten. LA schools were unsafe after a big earthquake. People did not have money but they voted YES for school bonds.

I became radicalized when I was 14 and Uncle Si gave me a subscription to the NATION. In medical school at USC, I organized a chapter of the Association of Interns and Medical Students. AIMS worked for universal healthcare which was proposed in the Murray Wagner Dingell Act at the time, for admission of all colors and varieties of applicants to med schools, end to the Cold War and other Peace and Justice issues. We in AIMS were clearly subversive in the lexicon of the FBI and the House UnAmerican Activities Committee. Fueled by the Cold War and then the hot war in Korea they swooped down on AIMS and many Progressive organizations. AIMS was driven off medical campuses one after another.

I was a medical resident at the University of Chicago in 1951 and ’52. I worked like Hell, night and day as I had as an intern at LA County Hospital the year before. I also circulated a petition urging Cedars of Lebanon Hospital in Los Angeles to reinstate 3 prominent physicians who had been dropped from the staff for being alleged Communists. The last national convention of AIMS was held in Chicago in 1951. Quentin Young and I and other house staff and medical students fought a rearguard action to save AIMS but the Korean War, the FBI and frightened medical school administrators shut us down. A few months later I was fired from my residency. On balance, Chicago and AIMS were great human experiences working with my fellow radical activists.

My wife, baby daughter, and I moved from Chicago to Harlan County, KY. There I joined a 3 man group providing care to coal miners and their families under the United Mine Workers Welfare Fund. I was the internist of the group and I also delivered babies. I loved it. But then as now you have to understand, “There’s a war on.”

In 1953 I was drafted into the Air Force illegally. The Doctors Draft Law required that drafted doctors had to be given officers commissions. 32 of us refused to sign Cold War generated loyalty oaths and were held as “doctor privates”. As always I worked hard taking care of my patients, talking to other Air Force members about the evils of the AF loyalty oath. A year later a conservative federal judge granted my petition for a Writ of Habeas Corpus and I was out of the Air Force.

Back home to Los Angeles, I joined the Community Medical Center (CMC), a small group medical practice which provided good quality healthcare to patients who could not afford usual fees. Soon after the UnAmerican Activities Committee held hearings on “Communism in the medical profession.” The star witness was an alleged former member of the CMC medical staff whom I hadn’t ever seen. She testified, “Those doctors are not working for patients, they are working for the Communist Party.” That was the headline in the LA Examiner and the “red meat” lead on TV. We gained patients after this “expose”. By contrast the CMC failed a year later because of internal rifts. The group practice survived.

From 1953 to 1974 I practiced as internist in our small medical group and then left for three more years of training and emerged as a cardiologist and assistant clinical professor of medicine at UCLA, later at Keck/USC medical school where I teach part time. Every week I take 6 first year medical students from the medical school, across the street to the LA County General Hospital where they interview and examine patients, one on one and begin the process of becoming physicians.

Achieving the universal human right to healthcare is a lifelong commitment. But it is not a single life issue . For example in 1961 the Civil Defense Agency urged home owners to dig “fallout shelters” in their backyards to survive an anticipated Russian nuclear attack. School children did “duck and cover” exercises. They ducked and got under their desks to stay safe in case of an atom bomb. This widespread paranoia was produced by the US government and amplified by the media. This mendacious campaign was considered essential to convince the public to support nuclear war fighting; for defense, of course.

In 1961, Dr. Bernard Lown, a Harvard cardiologist and several other Boston academics, analyzed Civil Defense data supporting the premise of survivability after a single Hiroshima size bomb exploded over Boston. Their study demonstrated conclusively that no one would survive for miles around Boston. They published their results in the New England Journal of Medicine. The Civil Defense Agency didn’t survive much longer. (Now we have a federal Department of “Homeland Defense”). But in 1961, Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR) was born. Lown was its obstetrician and cardiologist. I began organization of the first local chapter, LAPSR. PSR is now a large well established national organization. For 60 years we have published, testified and demonstrated against nuclear war preparation and the nuclear industry which underpins it. Our issues have broadened to include the environment, and others.

Two other organizations were formed by leaders of PSR. One was the International Physicians for Prevention of Nuclear War, (IPPNW). “What cannot be treated must be prevented.” IPPNW grew rapidly among physicians in many countries including the Soviet Union. All worked to prevent nuclear weapons in their own countries. Lown worked with his counterpart, Dr. Chamois, a prominent Soviet cardiologist against nuclear war. In 1985, Lown and Chazoff, on behalf of IPPNW were awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace.

Soon after the founding of PSR the struggle for civil rights mobilized Americans to a degree not seen since the great Depression. Dr. Quentin Young and some other Progressive doctors in Chicago organized the Medical Committee for Human Rights. We in Los Angeles organized the LA chapter of MCHR. Later we merged LAPSR and LAMCHR. Issues of Peace and Human Rights cannot be separate. During the Freedom Summer, 1964 LAPSR /MCHR sent MDs to Mississippi for short stays to support SNCC and others who were registering Black citizens to vote. My brief sojourn with Mississippians and the civil rights workers who came to register them, was one of the most inspiring of my life.

An outgrowth of PSR was the Committee of Responsibility for War Injured Vietnamese children, (COR) The organization grew in cities across the US. I was the Los Angeles Board member of COR. We brought war injured Vietnamese children to US medical centers for complex surgeries. In LA Dr. Leonard Linde, A UCLA pediatric cardiologist organized with UCLA faculty surgeons to arrange for treatment of two VN children at UCLA Medical Center by the hospital and the doctors without charge. Dr. Linde was their attending pediatrician. He had to confront the Medical School Dean who opposed our plan. The Dean rightly believed that exposing the US public to the effects of our VN War on children would adversely effect public support of the War. The children underwent multiple surgeries and and postoperative rehabilitation services. They lived with a member of COR and her family when they were not in the hospital. One of the children came back to Los Angeles at age 20, a lovely young woman transformed from her grotesque face when she first arrived at UCLA.

In the US, there was growing resistance to the draft and widespread revulsion over the nightly TV pictures of US forces killing women and children, including by napalm. Of course we organized to stop the war.In 1967, we joined several thousand other people to confront President Johnson at the Century Plaza Hotel over his escalating war in Vietnam. The police used excessive force against us. Ruth Peck confronted a policeman who was threatening a person with epilepsy who was on the ground and could not “Move On!”. Next day, Ruth arranged a press conference at our house. Doctors who had been at Century City the the day before testified about what they saw, an entirely peaceful demonstration with policemen attacking demonstrators. Soon after,Johnson announced that he would not run for re-election.

Ruth also organized large successful fund raising parties to benefit the Committee of Responsibility for War Injured Vietnamese Children. At one if these events Our featured speaker was renowned pediatrician and antiwar activist Dr. Benjamin Spock. A footnote that evening was the meeting of Dr. Spock and Mr. Spock, Leonard Nimoy, of Star Trek. Another speaker was Howard Levy, MD, who was ordered when he was in Indochina to teach indigenous men to do first aid to win their tribes people over to fight for the Americans.

This order clearly violated the Hippocratic Oath. Levy refused and was court martialed and sent to Leavenworth prison. He had just been released before our party. Dr. Levy told the gathering that he was a super patriot because he helped make the US do right and get out of Vietnam.

On the other hand, the demands for Civil Rights gave Lyndon Johnson the ammunition he needed to push Civil Rights and Medicare through Congress. Opposition to Medicare from the Right was powerful. I debated against officers of the LA County Medical Association who invariably declaimed that Medicare was Socialism and would put a government agent in every examining room. Some reactionary MDs pledged that they would never treat patients who wanted their services under Medicare. A few months later, all of them were treating seniors and billing Medicare, and doing very nicely, thank you. Medicare established healthcare as a right, but only when you reach 65 or are totally disabled.

Medicare provides seniors with a physician of their choice, has greatly expanded medical education. It has funded research which led to treatments we could only dream of before 1965. It has created millions of well-paying jobs which cannot be exported over seas. Medicare is a not for profit system that runs on 3% overhead. It is the best thing that has happened to patients and physicians. HMOs are the worst thing that has happened to us and our patients.

Now we are in the long bitter struggle to improve Medicare and extend it to everyone

By the mid 70’s I had been an activist for 30 years. If I had stayed in the service for 30 years, a ghastly hypothetical, I could have retired with full pension. I gave myself an honorable discharge from leadership positions in our organizations. In 1992 and 1993, I helped organize CaPA, and worked diligently for Proposition 186 to establish an expanded Medicare type program for California. The authors of this bill were Dr. Kevin Grumbach and at U C San Francisco and a few others. 186 started out ahead in the polls but then, Please go to Google and find:
Buying An Election – California’s Universal Healthcare Initiative – 1994
By Gordonskene Saturday Jan 30, 2010 6:00pm.

Greed succeeded. The insurance industry used appealing actors. Remember Harry and Louise the lovable couple who told us innumerable times on TV how they loved their HMO and feared government intervention? They overwhelmed us.

Now I limit my organizational activism to CaPA only and serve on the BOD. I am not available for any executive position. I serve in the new position of CaPA representative in the 29th Congressional District of Congressman Adam Schiff.

Since Franklin Roosevelt was president, we always had Republican congressmen in Pasadena. In 2000, we finally defeated the last Republican troglodyte and elected Adam Schiff. I have met with him often to urge he support single payer health care. He never does. He does cast some Liberal votes and we Progressives in the district compliment him on these.

In CD 29 I work in coalition with other organizations. We have lobbied in meetings with Congressman Schiff, our state senators and Assembly members and the Pasadena City Council. A leading organizer of this coalition is Irma Stranz, chairperson in Pasadena of Healthcare for All, and League of Women Voters and an active member of CaPA in Los Angeles. Other organizations we work with include the Teachers Union, other unions and the Presbyterian Church. I go to rallies, march and write, for universal humane health care and for Justice and to end all our imperial wars.

Keep working for the changes we know are right and remember the 2,000 year old Roman adage, Illegitimi non carborundum. “Don’t let the bastards wear you down.” In this case, the bastards who stole healthcare.