Dr. Helen Caldicott

Dr. Helen Broinowski Caldicott
Dr. Helen Broinowski Caldicott
SayCheeeeeese / [Public domain] via Wikimedia

Helen Broinowski was already studying medicine at the University of Adelaide when she read Nevil Shute's On the Beach. The novel told the story of five Australians witnessing a nuclear holocaust and the subsequent end of the world.

It changed her life.

Not only did the book bring home the terror of nuclear war, it also awoke in her a sense of responsibility for making sure the world would not end this way. It didn't hurt that Broinowski had a natural inclination for taking on risky issues.

"I am known to be irascible from time to time," she wrote in her autobiography, A Desperate Passion. Insert "gutsy" in place of "irascible" and you have classic Helen Broinowski Caldicott: one of only 13 women in a medical school class of 150, crusader for peace, driving force behind treatment for Australian sufferers of cystic fibrosis.

These were the 1950s, when Britain, America and Russia were "going hell for leather testing nuclear weapons in the atmosphere." It was during this time when she read On the Beach and learned about the effects of radiation on cancers and genetic mutations in her classes at medical school. Nevertheless, the true trajectory of her life was only made clear in 1963 when her first child, Philip, was born:

I suddenly realized I was now an adult. No longer could I expect other people to make the world safe. I had to accept that the responsibility for the safety of this child, for his future--for that of all children in this nuclear age--was now mine.

Caldicott followed her husband, Bill Caldicott, to Boston and in 1967 began working at the Children's Hospital Medical Center for Harry Schweachman, whom she called a "pioneer in the treatment of cystic fibrosis." Upon her return three years later, she began working at a hospital in Adelaide and was horrified to discover that children with cystic fibrosis were considered lost cases and not given treatment. Caldicott realized that she needed to establish the first cystic fibrosis clinic in Australia, and did it.

At this time, France was testing nuclear weapons on an island near Australia and New Zealand in violation of a test-ban treaty. She wrote an indignant letter to the local newspaper expressing her growing fears:

As a doctor, I knew that radiation could induce genetic disease as well as cancer and leukemia, particularly in children, who are 10 to 20 times more radiosensitive than adults....All the anxiety I had felt since reading On the Beach years ago returned, increased by new information as well as anger. How dare the French test nuclear weapons so close to Australia! If testing was as safe as they assured us, why weren't they exploding their bombs closer to home in the Mediterranean? I was enraged and decided that I must inform the public about the medical dangers posed by these tests.

This was not daydreaming on her part: Caldicott went on to dedicate more than three decades to researching and educating others about the theoretical effects of nuclear war and the actual health effects of radiation. She spoke to uranium miners about the risks of their work from radium and plutonium, both dangerous carcinogens. She spoke to general audiences around Australia. Word of the bomb-testing was getting out. Thousands of people began joining the anti-nuke movement. And all the while Caldicott continued her work with children afflicted with cystic fibrosis.

"I was learning about courage," she wrote. "Treating children who were almost certainly dying of a particularly aggressive disease taught me more about bravery than did my new political career."

In 1975, Caldicott and her family returned to the United States, then still involved in Cold War one-upsmanship with the Soviet Union. There had never been a more urgent time for her to resume her work. She continued speaking out in support of grassroots and national anti-nuke efforts. After a few years, she and some friends launched an organization of doctors who would educate the public on the dangers of nuclear power called Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR), and she also joined Women's Action for Nuclear Disarmament (WAND). PSR wrote an open letter to Leonid Brezhnev and Jimmy Carter, outlining their concerns, and received written answers from both leaders agreeing with their points. Through connections she made in WAND, Caldicott was able to go to Canada and meet with Pierre Trudeau, then the prime minister. As a result of that meeting, Trudeau organized the five-continent, six-nation Peace Initiative. The anti-nuke movement was growing in visibility and relevance. By 1982, PSR had 30,000 members nationally.

Caldicott resigned as president of PSR in 1984, but continued her political activism for some time. She also wrote several books including If You Love This Planet, Nuclear Madness: What You Can Do and Missile Envy. A documentary of Caldicott's work, "Eight Minutes to Midnight" by Mary Benjamin, was nominated for an Academy Award in 1982. Sister Helen Prejean, author of Dead Man Walking, has written of Caldicott:

I heard this lady speak and she breathed on the coals of my soul and blew me bright awake to the nuclear threat. She showed me what one set-on-fire human being can do to shift the consciousness of the world...She teaches us how to build a fire.

Page created on 6/12/2004 3:24:23 PM

Last edited 8/3/2020 7:56:16 AM

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