Doctors pledge to “do no harm,” but what about the hospitals that house them? A winner of one of this year’s “genius grants,” as MacArthur Fellows Program awards are known, is trying to make sure hospitals adhere to a higher standard of sustainability.

For decades, Gary Cohen led a quiet revolution against dangerous toxins that made their way from hospitals into the environment. Every year, broken thermometers would spill mercury, a dangerous neurotoxin. Widespread use of medical-waste incinerators would spew cancer-causing pollutants into the air.

“The fact that hospitals were poisoning people and the environment in service of healing them, it was crazy,” said Cohen in an interview with the MacArthur Foundation.

His organization, Health Care Without Harm, led successful campaigns against medical incinerators and mercury, culminating in a global treaty phasing out mercury-based medical equipment by 2020. Now, Health Care Without Harm has partners in more than 50 countries, and hospitals are getting serious about environmental responsibility.

‘Geniuses’ with no strings attached

Cohen says he is still deciding how to use the $625,000 grant from the MacArthur Foundation. With no strings attached, the award gives him important “breathing room” to determine next steps.

“The critical work that Health Care Without Harm is doing now is to have health care institutions play a fundamental role in our ability to address climate change,” he said. Whether that’s through volunteer initiatives to adopt renewable energy, resilient architecture or community-based health programs, Cohen aims to bring the world more healthy hospitals for patients and the environment.

Every year, the MacArthur Fellows Program awards 20 to 30 “genius grants” to creative individuals in many fields of study. This year, awardees include Ta-Nehisi Coates, an influential journalist and bestselling writer, as well as Basil Twist, a third-generation master of puppetry.