Sounding the Alarm on Climate Change, 1989 and 2019

“The subject of climatic and environmental changes that result from human activity has been much in the news recently,” Alexander Leaf wrote in the Journal 30 years ago. Threatened by acid rain, greenhouse gases, ozone depletion, and global warming, the planet seemed vulnerable. Humans would face “disastrous consequences” as the planet ruptured around them. Leaf was sounding the alarm on climate change and human health: environmental change had become part of the burden of physicians. Now, as the climate crisis continues to unfold, the story of a physician who devoted his attention first to the nuclear threat and then to planetary health offers much-needed inspiration.

Leaf was born Alexander Livshiz in 1920, in Japan, where his parents had fled the Russian Revolution. After migrating to the United States, he studied chemistry at the University of Washington, joined the Army Medical Corps, and completed an accelerated medical degree at the University of Michigan in 1943. After residencies at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) and the Mayo Clinic, he returned to Michigan to research electrolyte metabolism, including how bodies responded to hot climates. With support from the Rockefeller Foundation, he established a cell biology laboratory at Harvard Medical School (HMS). In 1966, he became the Jackson Professor of Clinical Medicine at Harvard and chief of medicine at MGH.