Helen Caldicott Biography (1938-)
- pediatrician, antinuclear activist
Helen Caldicott is a pediatrician and an antinuclear activist, who opposes both nuclear weapons and nuclear power. In the early 1970s she spearheaded an antinuclear movement in her native Australia, which forced an end to French nuclear testing in the South Pacific and managed to stop Australian uranium exports from 1975 to 1982. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, she became a leader in the antinuclear movement in the United States through her role in reviving the organization Physicians for Social Responsibility , which expanded rapidly during her presidency (which ran from 1978 to 1983). She helped found several other organizations which have worked to abolish controlled nuclear fission. Relying on her passionate oratory and intensely personal style, which are grounded in a thorough knowledge of the medical effects of exposure to radiation , she was particularly effective in raising grass-roots support and bringing nuclear issues to the forefront in the 1980s.
Caldicott was born on August 7, 1938, in Melbourne, Australia, the daughter of a factory manager, Philip Broinowski, and an interior designer, Mary Mona Enyd (Coffey) Broinowski. She received a public-school education except for four years spent at Fintona Girls School in Adelaide, a private secondary school. She recalls today that she was strongly affected as an adolescent by reading Nevil Shute's On the Beach, a novel about nuclear devastation setin Australia. At the age of 17, she enrolled at the University of Adelaide Medical School, graduating in 1961 with a B.S. in surgery and an M.B. in medicine (the equivalent of an American M.D.).
She moved to Boston with her husband in 1966 for a three-year fellowship in nutrition at Harvard Medical School. Returning to Adelaide in 1969, she accepted a position in the renal unit of Queen Elizabeth Hospital. In the early 1970s at the same hospital, she completed a year's residency and a two-year internship in pediatrics. She also set up a clinic for cystic fibrosis.
Both her work with children afflicted with cystic fibrosis, a genetic disorder, and her experience as an expectant mother assuming responsibility for herown children persuaded Caldicott that she had to take a more active role in ensuring a future for human beings. In 1971, she discovered that France had been conducting nuclear tests over its South Pacific colony of Mururoa for theprevious five years and had done so in violation of the International Atmospheric Test Ban Treaty of 1962. Fallout from the tests drifted towards Australia and entered the food chain in various ways. A confidential South Australiangovernment report, for instance, confirmed that higher than normal levels ofradiation were present in drinking water in 1971 and in rain in 1972. Caldicott organized opposition at a time when few Australians were aware of eitherthe testing or the radioactive fallout that had resulted. She began by sending a letter of protest to a local newspaper. Subsequently, she made radio andtelevision appearances, commenting on the medical risks of radiation. From her work in pediatrics she was acutely aware that children are more sensitive to the effects of radiation than adults. She always emphasized this fact, appealing to her audience as parents responsible for the well-being of their children. She made public the confidential report (passed on to her by a sympathizer within the state government) describing elevated radiation levels in drinking and rain water. Her speeches began a mass movement against the French tests that had thousands taking part in protest marches and resulted in a boycott of French products. When, in December 1972, the Australian Labor Party swept the Liberal Party out of office, the government undertook legal action against France through the International Court of Justice. Although the court ruled ambiguously, the French government ceased atmospheric testing in the faceof widespread organized opposition.
Caldicott was less successful in her attempt to organize against the commercial exploitation of uranium , a relatively rare raw material necessary for most nuclear technology. Australia has rich uranium deposits and exported the material to many different countries. Caldicott got union backing for her proposed export ban by organizing among workers. She recalls today that her emphasis on the fact that radiation exposure causes a deformation of sperm cells (and thus a rise in the rate of birth defects) was her most potent argument. The Australian Council of Trade Unions passed a resolution against the mining,transport, and sale of uranium in 1975. In the same year the government imposed the desired export ban. Under international pressure, however, the ban waslifted in 1982.
Caldicott returned to Boston in 1975, having received an appointment as a fellow in cystic fibrosis at the Children's Hospital Medical Center. Although she and her family went back to Australia for six months in 1976, they returnedto the United States in 1977. At that time, she became an associate in medicine at the Children's Hospital Medical Center and an instructor in pediatricsat Harvard Medical School.
Physicians for Social Responsibility was a group initially formed in 1962. By1978, when Caldicott became involved with it, its membership had dwindled and its field of action narrowed significantly. It remained a small group untilMarch 28, 1979, when Pennsylvania's Three Mile Island nuclear reactor came within sixty minutes of a possible meltdown. At once, more than five hundred physicians joined Physicians for Social Responsibility. Thereafter, its membership, budget, and size of paid staff continued to grow impressively. With Caldicott at its head, the group fought the nuclear industry, conducted researchon the results of nuclear war, worked politically for nuclear disarmament, and conducted numerous symposia and sponsored countless lectures. Caldicott gave up the practice of medicine in 1980 to devote herself to full-time leadership of the organization. Her gifts as a public speaker had a tremendous impact on a great many audiences. Caldicott consciously espouses a feminine ethicof nurturance, exhorting women to become more aggressive in their role as caretakers of humanity and appealing to men to cultivate the elements of nurturing in their lives. Physicians for Social Responsibility also made a powerfuldocumentary film, Eight Minutes to Midnight, which was featured on atour with Caldicott and was nominated for an Academy Award in 1982. In addition to delivering numerous speeches in church, labor, university, and other settings, she wrote Nuclear Madness: What You Can Do! with Nancy Herrington and Nahum Stiskin. The book provides detailed descriptions of the medical and environmental results of nuclear war as well as political prescriptions for preventing it.
The growth of the organization brought more diverse membership, which, afterbecoming unwilling to follow Caldicott in her opposition to nuclear power inaddition to nuclear weapons, pushed for a more mainstream position. As a result, she resigned as president in 1983, but continued to serve on the board ofdirectors. She also helped found the Medical Campaign Against Nuclear War, the Women's Action for Nuclear Disarmament, the Women's Party for Survival anda number of other organizations concerned with nuclear and other environmental issues. Her second book, Missile Envy: the Arms Race and Nuclear War, came out in 1984.
Caldicott's speeches and writings combine detailed medical descriptions witha highly personal and sometimes emotional approach. She describes the devastating physical results of a nuclear detonation in elaborate detail as it wouldaffect particular individuals according to their geographical location. Medical metaphors and analogies illustrate political and environmental problems,while her personal experiences lend force to the narrative. Her own joy in having and raising her children gave her a heightened concern for the future ofthe earth. Caldicott's witness to this personal experience often makes her successful in convincing audiences that nuclear dangers are not abstract but threaten every individual human life. Although she makes a particularly strongappeal to women, occasionally arguing that women are particularly suited tosave the earth from the warmongers and transnational corporations, she also has a strong following among men.
Her books have gained praise but criticism as well, even at times from thosewho would seem to be her natural allies. Some critics have pointed to superficial documentation and inaccurate statements in overly polemical presentations. She has also been criticized for failing to recognize that her arguments are essentially middle class and do not address the concerns of working-classpeople. Yet Caldicott has also been praised for bringing awareness of nucleardangers to center stage and for offering concrete, grass-roots political programs for combatting those dangers.
Returning to Australia, Caldicott ran for a seat in parliament in 1990, losing by a very narrow margin. Since then, she has published a third book, IfYou Love This Planet: A Plan to Heal the Earth (1992), which focuses more broadly on environmental issues than her previous publications. At home inCanberra, she lives by her environmental convictions. As she told reporter Will Nixon, interviewing her for E Magazine in 1992, "I've just planted 400 eucalyptus and rain-forest trees on my land. It was like having a baby, the joy it gave me because I'm replenishing the land." She is also experimenting with systems of self-sustaining agriculture.
Caldicott's numerous awards include the Humanist of the Year Award from the American Association of Humanistic Psychology in 1982, and the International Year of Peace Award from the Australian government in 1986. She was one of thenominees for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1985 and holds many honorary degrees.In 1962, she married William Caldicott, a pediatric radiologist, who has worked with her in her campaigns. They have three children, Philip, Penny, and William Jr.