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The Kiss of Life

Lawrence Bush
April 11, 2017

Peter Safar, whose pioneering “Kiss of Life” procedure of mouth-to-mouth cardio-pulmonary resuscitation has saved countless lives, was born into a medical family in Vienna on this date in 1924. Safar managed to conceal his Jewish identity during the Nazi years, which resulted in his conscription into the Hitler Youth. He evaded service by smearing himself with an ointment that produced a bizarre rash, resulting in a medical discharge. Safar’s experiences during the Nazi years, which included working in a labor camp, “had a profound effect on his world view,” writes Jeanne Lenzer at the U.S. National Library of Medicine. “He worked tirelessly for nuclear disarmament, international law, and world peace through organizations such as International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War and the World Federalist Association.” In 1958, Safar developed what is likely the first intensive care unit in the United States, at Baltimore City Hospital, where he had already demonstrated that mouth-to-mouth breathing could maintain life-saving oxygen levels in accident or heart-attack victims who were not breathing. In 1961, he founded the University of Pittsburgh’s anesthesiology department, and in 1976 he helped found the World Association for Disaster and Emergency Medicine. Safar promoted numerous programs that trained lay people in CPR techniques. Nominated three times for the Nobel Prize in Medicine, he died at 79 in 2003. “The result of his efforts can be seen in the modern ambulance,” said the Guardian in its obituary, “and today’s methods of intensive care based on Safar’s ABC of resuscitation: airway, breathing and circulation.”

““He saw a connection between medicine and politics. He knew that injuries to humans caused by war could be prevented through political cooperation. He saw the United Nations as the only organization that could bring hope to the idea of world cooperation.”--Amy A. Langham, World Federalist Association, Pittsburgh

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.