It might be difficult to believe if you were born within the last three decades, but there was once a time when America was led by a doddering former B-List celebrity who clung to popularity via an intoxicating and ever fluctuating combination of charisma and fear-mongering, culminating in a mad push for producing stockpiles of nuclear weapons that could kill every person on Earth multiple times over, should the occasion arise.  The Soviet Union and the United States had been locked in a half-century tournament of mutual and willful misunderstanding perpetuated by a succession of leaders who took it as gospel that a nuclear war was winnable, so long as you were the guy with the most weapons.

Fortunately, we learned our lesson from the dangerous seduction of Cold War thinking, and would certainly never fall for that trick again, but it was a rare person indeed in the 1970s and early 80s who could see beyond the rhetoric of the Strategic Air Command’s ”Our Profession is Peace” sloganeering and soberly calculate the cost to humanity if we should fail to rise above our worst demons.  There were early detractors of nuclear warfare, surely, but they were easily sloughed off as Commie poets- layabout peaceniks too treacherous or uninformed to see the Real Danger of the Soviet Union and the Real Security to be had behind a wall of atomic weaponry.

If the dangers of nuclear war were to be discussed openly, it would have to be by a segment of the population people trusted, people who had something to lose by their anti-nuclear advocacy and thus could only be speaking out of dire earnest for the public good.  In 1978, the medical community assumed responsibility for that role when Dr. Helen Caldicott, an Australian physician and cystic fibrosis specialist who had spent the last half decade studying the medical impact of radiation and nuclear weaponry, formed the Physicians for Social Responsibility, an organization of medical men and women who would form the anti-nuclear intellectual vanguard in the closing years of the Cold War.

Forty years before the founding of the PSR, Helen Caldicott had been born Helen Broinowski, the first of three children.  The Broinowskis were an intellectually adventurous, quick-tempered couple, and Helen’s mother in particular alternated between long stretches of reading and short bursts of rage directed at her eldest daughter.  Helen was regularly beaten throughout childhood, and as is often the case with maltreated children, she carried with her a constant sense of guilt: if mother is treating me this badly this often surely I must be to blame?

Physically and emotionally battered, young Helen was nonetheless given free rein to expand her mind academically and intellectually.  When she announced at a young age her intention of becoming a doctor, she was encouraged by both parents and sent to an expensive preparatory academy in spite of the slim financial situation of the family.  The Australian educational system at the time allowed one to attend medical school directly after high school, and so in 1961, at the mere age of 23, she emerged from the University of Adelaide with a medical degree.

The landmark event in Caldicott’s life that year was not her graduation, however, but the death of her father after a sharp and sudden downturn in his health.  It was a devastating loss of a parent, ally, and kindred spirit, and in her despair she turned perhaps too ready an ear to the wooing of a young radiologist named William Caldicott.  Unlike the pattern in her previous relationships, she was not madly in love with him, but he was sociable and amusing, was of her own profession and in short, he made the loneliness of loss less oppressive.  They were married within a year after her father’s death.

The newlyweds proceeded to have three children in quick succession, and Caldicott had to manage cooking, childcare, and profession at once, a task which reached its crescendo of difficulty when William took a tempting position in Boston while she was still pregnant, forcing her to look after the children, have a new child, and manage the move of all the children to rejoin him in America, with nobody to rely on except her seriously ailing mother.

Somehow she fought through that episode and made it to the United States with children and mother in tow.  For five years, she tried various configurations of family, work, and political engagement, each more exhausting and demanding than the last.  She witnessed America’s success in increasing the life expectancy for patients with cystic fibrosis, and wanted to import those methods to Australia, where a They’re Doomed, The Best Thing Is To Let Them Die Quickly strategy was in place that brought with it a life expectancy dramatically less than equivalent patients in the United States.

This work was important, and the cystic fibrosis clinic she eventually established became a model for what might be done to improve the lives of CF patients and their families, but the cause that consumed the rest of Caldicott’s life arrived at last in 1971 in the form of a mushroom cloud.  The French were performing nuclear tests in the Pacific that was causing radioactive fallout to pepper mainland Australia.  Caldicott read up on the health risks not only directly caused by the detonation of the weapons, but inflicted on those who mine the uranium required for them, and the communities who live in the vicinity of those mines.

With every moment that could be spared from her medical practice, she was out on the road speaking to whoever would listen about the medical effects of radioactive fallout and even casual, regular exposure to radioactive materials.  When the family returned to America for a sabbatical year in 1975, she set herself the task of confronting the most powerfully held belief of the world’s most powerful nation: that the nuclear bomb was the United States’ best and only chance at security and peace.

She earned a reputation as a speaker who could tailor an impromptu speech to the cut of her audience on the fly – now cool, professional, and statistical when speaking before a collection of medical professionals, then passionate and maternal addressing a mother’s organization, and later full of Gospel truths about peace and forgiveness when holding the attention of the nation’s manifold religious gatherings.

She realized she couldn’t balance her work as a physician with her role as leader of the nascent anti-nuclear movement, and decided that the latter was where she needed to be.

As she drew larger crowds at higher profile venues, Caldicott realized that her position as a physician gave her words a weight unavailable to most of the anti nuclear movement.  Those willing to write off poets and social theorists and environmentalists as anti-American Communist sympathizers suddenly found themselves open to the words of a medical person explaining the medical issues attendant upon the development and use of nuclear weapons.  The next step seemed clear – to band together as many medical professionals as possible in an organization that might present a united front against nuclear weapons.  The first meeting of this organization, the Physicians for Social Responsibility, which would at its height claim tens of thousands of members, was held in the Caldicott home and consisted of less than half a dozen attendees.

For five years, Caldicott criss-crossed the United States, taking every invitation to appear on television and before concerned citizens to present the human cost of nuclear proliferation.  After the Three Mile nuclear incident of 1979, she realized she couldn’t balance her work as a physician with her role as leader of the nascent anti-nuclear movement, and decided that the latter was where she needed to be.  She became a full-time anti-nuclear advocate, appearing regularly on all the major networks, sometimes flanked by famous anti-nuclear celebrities like Sally Field or Lily Tomlin.

After one talk, she was approached by the daughter of President Ronald Reagan, begging her to please talk with her father about the dangers of his administration’s nuclear policy.   The resulting one-on-one talk with the President was among the most surreal moments of Caldicott’s life as Reagan blurred in and out of focus, mixing up his numbers and sources but adamantly maintaining his administration’s policy.  It was a depressing meeting, and worse was to come for Caldicott and the anti-nuclear movement.

As the PSR grew in membership and influence, various high-placed individuals within its ranks began forming plans to seize power from Caldicott, first by forming a splinter organization, the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, which directly competed with PSR for funding and deliberately locked Caldicott out from its power structure, and then by fomenting dissatisfaction within the PSR at Caldicott’s style of leadership.  She had shouldered most of the burden for publicizing the PSR’s position in the media and for traveling the country drumming up new membership, primarily because nobody else stepped forward to do that kind of boots on the ground work, but now she faced criticism for being too often in front of the cameras, and for the emotionality of some of her appeals.  In 1983 the Board of Directors said it would be better for her to leave the presidency, which she duly did.

Luckily, another organization she had founded in 1980, Women’s Action for Nuclear Disarmament (WAND), was more than happy to have a greater share of her time, and together they lobbied hard for the election of Walter Mondale in 1984, only to stand by in disbelief as he refused to offer a definitive policy of nuclear disarmament that might have energized his voter base.  His monumental defeat put the movement in temporary paralysis, and Caldicott with it.  For the first time, she faced complete doubt about the utility of everything she had ever done.  While the IPPNW spent its energy lobbying for a Nobel Prize for itself (which it won), Caldicott lamented that, in spite of the PSR, WAND, and the IPPNW, in spite of their massive public demonstrations and tens of thousands of members, not a single nuclear weapon had been decommissioned as a result of their half decade of work.

It was a low point, and it would get lower.  Her husband William was doing medical work he found unstimulating, and was growing lonely and resentful as Caldicott took every opportunity to speak publicly about the anti-nuclear movement, leaving him as the primary caretaker of the children.  They sought counseling, but to no avail.  He left her in 1988.

All was not, however, for naught.  The organizations she had raised to prominence from nothing hadn’t directly pushed through a policy to denuclearize the world in their first half decade of existence, but their message had broken through the nuclear mania of the Cold War, and by the mid 1980s polling data showed overwhelming support for a freeze on the production of nuclear weapons, and a policy of steady nuclear disarmament, a shift so dramatic that Reagan’s handlers initiated a paradigm shift in nuclear policy that combined with Mikhail Gorbachev’s earnest hatred of nuclear weapons to produce some first steps towards meaningful nuclear change.

Yes, Caldicott was no longer president of the PSR, but that also meant she was no longer beholden to the restrictions they wanted to place on her message, and when she re-emerged as a speaker on nuclear issues, her themes took on a broader scope.  She challenged assumptions about the safety of nuclear power which she had been repeatedly dissuaded from tackling in the heyday of the PSR, and developed themes about America’s irresponsible hunger for energy that keep us dependent on large scale energy resources.

The Cold War is over, but Dr. Helen Caldicott is decidedly still here, and will continue to be so long as nations take their capacity to destroy as the measure of their strength, and the prospective elimination of Other People as the guarantor of their safety.

Lead image via Wikipedia, public domain.


FURTHER READING: Caldicott has authored a number of books, each responding to that era’s nuclear policy.  The first, Nuclear Madness (1978), is still her most famous, while Caldicott’s post-PSR freedom allowed her to evolve her position, resulting in Nuclear Power is Not the Answer (2006) and a small fleet of other titles besides.  For the meteoric path of her life, her autobiography Desperate Passion (1996) is a brutally frank and self-analytic portrait of the birth of the anti-nuclear movement and her own trials of depression attempting to incorporate activism, childhood trauma, parental death, career, family, and marriage into something like a stable life.  There were also several films made about her at the height of the PSR, Eight Minutes to Midnight (1981) and If You Love This Planet (1982) being the two easiest to find.  There are also looooooooads of full speeches from throughout her career available on YouTube.

And for more awesome Women in Science comics, check out the archive and my books, Illustrated Women in Science – Volume 12 and 3.