By John Carruthers, staff writer, August 1, 2012
Concerned with the potential effects of nuclear war, La Crosse, Wis., dermatologist James Baumgaertner, MD, became intrigued in the late 1980s with projects that drew attention to its dangers. After joining the local chapter of Physicians for Social Responsibility and participating in peace demonstrations, he became fascinated by the Japanese tradition of floating paper lanterns in memory of those killed in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Working in a pre-Internet era, Dr. Baumgaertner founded and almost single-handedly ran a project, the International Peace Lantern Exchange Project (IPLEP), to unite American and Soviet children through a pen-pal program and paper lantern exchange.[pagebreak]
"It creates a vision of beauty, with a reminder of what cost could occur. The lanterns represent hope, and the body and soul of an individual."
- The lanterns were created by schoolchildren, who included artwork, photographs, and other mementos to emphasize the shared humanity of American and Soviet children. Dr. Baumgaertner’s wife, a painter, put her career on hold to go school to school and help grow the project.
- “I thought that as physicians dedicated to easing suffering, nuclear war could make all of our works useless. That was the start of this.”
- On an August Saturday in 1985, the IPLEP held the first lantern-floating ceremony in La Crosse; over the next six years the idea spread to 270 cities in 22 countries, garnering media attention and drawing participation from peace advocates from around the world.
- In 1986, Dr. Baumgaertner visited the Soviet Union. He was acknowledged by Soviet Premier Mikhael Gorbachev, but found himself at odds with the Soviet Peace Committee and tracked by the KGB. Six months later, he received a letter from a Leningrad peace activist that began a long-term correspondence. The trip was one of seven he and his wife took to the Soviet Union; they also visited Canada, Germany, India, Japan, and Nepal to promote the project.
- “It was great seeing the efforts of the kids involved reciprocated. What can a 14-year-old girl from Wisconsin do? She can help change the world. I’m happy that my daughter got to learn that from this project.”
- The peace lantern project led to a sister-city relationship between La Crosse and Dubna, Russia; the ongoing relationship includes the exchange of community leaders, artists, and medical professionals.
- Dr. Baumgaertner said he feels that to promote true peace between countries, it is necessary for the citizens to become personally involved with each other through pen-pal relationships, education, and exchanges. “Only love can destroy hate.”
To nominate a physician, visit www.aad.org/membersmakingadifference.