FOR American physician Bernard Lown and his Soviet counterpart, Yevgeny Chazov, it was a storybook event in what has become for them a storybook place: Geneva. Five years ago, Geneva was where they founded International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW), which seeks to educate the public on the effects of nuclear war.
On Friday, the two physicians, who have been friends for 25 years, happened to be together in the Swiss capital for a United Nations conference, when word reached them that IPPNW had won the 1985 Nobel Peace Prize.
Dr. Lown, a Harvard University cardiologist, who describes himself and Dr. Chazov as ``brothers,'' said by phone from his Swiss hotel that Geneva has a special meaning for them. ``Geneva was a watershed for us five years ago. We knew we were breaking new ground in forming IPPNW. It was exciting.''
But it was almost ``traumatic,'' Lown adds. IPPNW nearly fizzled. The Soviets almost walked out several times. The two sides disagreed on ``dozens of issues'' -- from the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and the treatment of dissident Soviet physicist Andrei Sakharov to US policy in Central America. At that point, the groups agreed on what is a central tenet of IPPNW: They would not discuss politics. Nuclear war was the biggest threat of the 20th century. Working to eliminate it would become the ``singl eminded focus'' of IPPNW.
The organization won the prize, the Nobel committee said, for performing ``a considerable service to mankind by spreading authoritative information [on] the catastrophic consequences of atomic warfare.''
It is the first time an East-West citizens' group has won the award.
Dr. John Pastore, an IPPNW executive member, said at a press conference in Boston that he felt the Nobel prize reaffirmed ``the ability of people to transcend political and cultural differences in achieving a necessary goal.''
``We began to look at the world as physicians,'' Lown says. ``The nuclear threat has put our patient's life in danger. The patient may also have gout, or an ingrown toenail. But first we remove the patient from the crisis. The other problems can be healed later.''
A nuclear war, the doctors agreed, would be so destructive that no medical response would be possible. The only response is to prevent one from happening.
It was a logic both sides could agree upon. And although IPPNW started in 1980 with no staff, no headquarters, and no money, it held a world congress only three months later. Today there are 145,000 IPPNW members in 41 countries.
While it may be coincidence he and Chazov are together in Geneva, Lown says it's ``absolutely no coincidence'' that IPPNW should receive the Nobel prize just before next month's Reagan-Gorbachev summit in -- where else -- Geneva.
The Nobel committee also said as much, describing IPPNW as contributing to ``the pressure of public opposition to the proliferation of atomic weapons. . . . Such an awakening of public opinion as is now apparent . . . can give the present arms-limitation negotiations . . . a new seriousness.''
Lown, who says physicians in the Soviet Union influenced Mikhail Gorbachev's decision to meet with President Reagan, says Reagan ``has a unique, historic opportunity'' to join the nuclear-test moratorium which the Soviets began in September, and which ends Dec. 31. IPPNW supports a comprehensive test-ban treaty.
On Friday, the IPPNW headquarters in Boston resembled an ant colony that has just been stepped on. Staff members, reporters, cameramen, and friends bounced off each other in the hallway of the small office, as staffers scrambled to put on a press conference.
I bumped into Dr. Eric Chivian, a founding member, long enough for him to talk a bit about IPPNW. Doctors in the organization do not pretend, Dr. Chivian says, to understand all the complexities of arms control negotiations. They do understand the medical consequences of nuclear war, he says, and report on them. This includes work on the ``innocent-bystander nations'' that would also be victimized.
For example, IPPNW looks not only at the effects of fallout or ``nuclear winter,'' but also at the starvation in other nations that would follow the elimination of ``the world's breadbasket.'' That number would be in the billions, he says.
IPPNW is also committed to citizens' exchange. Citizens' groups have shown their worth, Chivian says, in promoting cultural understanding. IPPNW sponsors doctors' tours in both the US and the Soviet Union.
The effectiveness of IPPNW, Chivian says, is that physicians can work quietly at a grass-roots level to inform citizens of the dangers of nuclear war. IPPNW takes the position that arms control experts often discuss the issue of nuclear war as if people weren't involved.
President Eisenhower's quote that someday the people are going to demand peace, and that governments had better ``get out of the way and let them have it'' is an IPPNW favorite.
This ``radical populism'' often takes a strident tone, as when another founding member, Dr. James Muller, said: ``Our common-sense approach confounds the nuclear chess players who influence policy decisions.''
Statements such as this have made the young organization controversial in some quarters. The most common criticism is that they seek their ends through fear and graphic discussion of war.
Soviet 'emigr'e Misha Tsypkin of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, says that although IPPNW claims to be nonpolitical, it is in fact highly political. Its policies, he says, ``suit the Kremlin very well.''
Dr. Sidney Alexander of IPPNW counters by saying that ``they [the Soviets] use us and we use them.''
Lown says the biggest influence IPPNW has had is not in the West, but behind the Iron Curtain. He points to several hours of unedited television discussion, viewed by over 100 million Russians, in which he, Chazov, and other doctors participated.
``Out of the blue, I stated on Soviet TV that civil defense in a nuclear war was a complete hoax,'' says Lown. ``To do that is generally unheard of.''
Although IPPNW stresses its internationalism, staff members agree that the American organization Physicians For Social Responsibility helped make it possible. PSR was formed in 1962 by a group of Boston doctors, including Lown, who lobbied effectively for the Atmospheric Test Ban Treaty, ratified in '63. The group languished between 1965 and 1978, but was revived by outspoken Australian Dr. Helen Caldicott in 1978.
At the press conference in Boston, Chivian said the Nobel Peace Prize ``was really a prize for our children.''
Lown and Chazov will accept the prize Dec. 10 in Oslo.