… I really need to address a Joint session of Congress so that they become aware of the travesty inherent in nuclear war which is definitely on the horizon. I also would need to have unlimited access to the American media to repeat what I did in the ’80s which was educating, educating, and more educating. To the effect that everyone becomes educated to a basic level about the horrific dangers of nuclear war and the disastrous consequences it would incur on public health and the environment. I would like for there to be a public demonstration of understanding of the situation we are in, like when we had one million people in Central Park protesting the nuclear arms race in 1982.
Dr. Helen Caldicott has devoted the last forty-two years to an international campaign to educate the public about the medical hazards of the nuclear age and the necessary changes in human behavior to stop environmental destruction. A native of Melbourne, Australia, Dr. Caldicott received her medical degree from the University of Adelaide Medical School in 1961 and was an instructor in pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and on the staff of the Children’s Hospital Medical Center, Boston, Mass. until 1980, when she resigned to work full time on the prevention of nuclear war. A Nobel Prize Nominee and the subject of the Academy Award Winning documentary short, If You Love This Planet, Dr. Caldicott currently divides her time between Australia and the U.S. where she lectures widely.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?
Igrew up in Melbourne, Australia, and my heroes as a child were Robin Hood and the Good Samaritan. Before age 10, I wanted to be a teacher, but I climbed into bed with my Mum one morning and said, “I’m going to be a doctor.” She asked why and I said, “I can help more people if I’m a doctor.”
Since that moment, I never altered that ambition. I went to medical school, which was free, at the age of 17 and spent six fascinating years learning about the human body, its biology, and its diseases.
You are currently leading a social impact organization that is making a difference for our planet. Can you tell us a bit about what you and your organization are trying to change in our world today?
I started Physicians for Social Responsibility in 1978 along with fellow physician, Dr. Ira Helfand, to educate the U.S. public regarding the medical dangers of nuclear power and nuclear war. We eventually recruited 23,000 physicians for this organization and I traveled the world to start similar groups in many countries including Canada and across Europe and Asia. Together we were awarded the 1985 Nobel Peace Prize. This work continues across the world.
I also started Women’s Action for Nuclear Disarmament (WAND) at about that time. It has been very influential in lobbying members of Congress and alerting and mobilizing U.S. citizens, particularly women, to work towards nuclear disarmament.
This ongoing global medical education reached and helped to propel Reagan and Gorbachev to meet in Reykjavik in 1969, where the two men almost agreed to abolish nuclear weapons. While the abolishment of nuclear weapons did not happen, that meeting did lead to the START treaty.
Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?
It all started when I was 17 and I read a book called On the Beach by Neville Shute. This book is about a nuclear war that occurs by accident in the Northern Hemisphere, with the radioactive cloud gradually coming down to the Southern Hemisphere and engulfing Melbourne. In preparation for the cloud, people are given cyanide tablets to end their lives and that of their children before they die hideous deaths from acute radiation illness, vomiting and bleeding to death. In the end, everyone in Melbourne dies and human life on earth is gone. As I lived in Melbourne, that scenario never left me and marked my soul. I lost the innocence and joy of adolescence and have been terrified and acutely aware of that danger ever since.
Of course, during medical school I learned the dangers of radiation. Radiation induces genetic mutations and therefore causes genetic diseases in both animals and plants. It also mutates the regulatory gene in a cell, which then, years later — called the latent period of carcinogenesis — induces unregulated reproduction of the cell which is known as cancer. When I was about 17, I remember writing to the Russian scientist Andrei Sakharov supporting his efforts for nuclear disarmament and he wrote back to me. I also always read the news to keep up with international politics and people like Walter Lippman, one of the first people to introduce the concept of “Cold War” to the masses, influenced my thinking.
Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest them. They don’t get up and just do it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and do it? What was that final trigger?
My husband left Adelaide, Australia in the early 1960s for him to take a post at the Department of Radiology at the Children’s Hospital Medical Center at Harvard. I stayed in Adelaide to give birth to my third baby and 5 months later I took three children under the age of 3 and a dying Mother to Boston to join him. I then got a part time job at Harvard at the Children’s Hospital Medical Center in the cystic fibrosis (CF) department working with Dr. Harry Schwachman, a pioneer in the disease, and learning how to treat this deadly disease. When we returned home to Adelaide three years later, I discovered that the CF children at the Adelaide Children’s Hospital were virtually untreated, so I took a job as an intern there to become a qualified pediatrician and so that I could set up the first CF clinic in Australia. Those children/adults now have the best longevity results in the country.
My husband and I exchanged roles — he, the carer, and I, the learner — and I worked 80 hours a week. During that time, I discovered that the Adelaide water supply was relatively radioactive from fallout from the French tests in the Pacific. In reaction to this, I wrote a letter to the paper describing the medical dangers this poses, particularly to children. It was published and that night I was on TV educating people about the situation. The Australian people were furious with the French and I was on the media consistently to talk about this issue, while huge spontaneous marches occurred in the city streets. Eventually, the outrage was so great that I went to the Élysée Palace in Paris with the incoming Australian deputy prime minister to meet and discuss the issue with French politicians. The Australian government eventually took France to the International Court of Justice and the vote went against them. They were forced to test their weapons underground. It was from that event that I understood the dictum of Jefferson: “An informed democracy will behave in a responsible fashion.”
However, thereafter I was shocked to discover that the Federal Government had decided to export uranium: the fuel for nuclear power and nuclear weapons. With the help of a train engine driver, we wrote to all the unions in Australia asking if I could talk to them regarding the medical dangers of mining uranium. They agreed and I spent several months travelling around the continent giving medical lectures to these workers about the dangers of exposing their bodies (including organs like the testicles) to radiation from the mining and processing of this element. Eventually, the National Railway Workers Union held a 24 day national strike protesting the mining so no one would get to work, and the Australian Council of Trade Unions passed a resolution that they would neither mine, transport, nor export our uranium. Another victory!
Many people don’t know the steps to take to start a new organization. What are some of the things or steps you took to get your project started?
When my husband and I immigrated to the U.S. to take up tenured jobs at Harvard Medical School, not that long after a filmmaker called Mary Benjamin decided to make a film about me called Eight Minutes to Midnight. On a visit back to Australia for the film, to my horror, I discovered that the Three Mile Island nuclear reactor had a major accident back in the States. I travelled back to Boston and was called down to Pennsylvania to talk to a huge gathering of frightened people in Harrisburg. The media coverage was intense.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?
I was asked to speak at the Playboy Mansion to an audience of film stars about the medical effects of nuclear war, a talk that was chaired by the beautiful Paul Newman who kissed my hand! Patti Davis, daughter of then current president Ronald Reagan, approached me after my speech and said, ”You are the only person who can convince my father about nuclear weapons. Will you see him?” I said yes, I’d meet with him, but only on the condition that it would be a one on one talk and without Edwin Meese, senior member of the Reagan Administration, James Baker, White House Chief of Staff, or Michael Deaver, White House Deputy Chief of Staff. Reagan and I had a private meeting and we spent over an hour discussing nuclear war, its prevention, and its medical implications, during which he quoted to me from the Reader’s Digest!
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson or take away you learned from that?
I was given a prize by the Union of Australian Women in the Homing Pigeons Hall in Adelaide. I read my speech and later a union official danced with me and said, “Never read a speech again.” I never did.
None of us can be successful without some help along the way. Did you have mentors or cheerleaders who helped you to succeed? Can you tell us a story about their influence?
Not really. I always knew somehow what to do and it always worked. In effect, I was honoring the Hippocratic Oath and practicing global preventive medicine.
Are there three things the community, society, or politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
I really need to address a Joint session of Congress so that they become aware of the travesty inherent in nuclear war which is definitely on the horizon. I also would need to have unlimited access to the American media to repeat what I did in the ’80s which was educating, educating, and more educating. To the effect that everyone becomes educated to a basic level about the horrific dangers of nuclear war and the disastrous consequences it would incur on public health and the environment. I would like for there to be a public demonstration of understanding of the situation we are in, like when we had one million people in Central Park protesting the nuclear arms race in 1982.
How would you articulate how a business can become more profitable by being more sustainable and more environmentally conscious? Can you share a story or example?
I would suggest that businesses read the available scientific literature, be smart, and set their company’s activities to achieve some positive results which are more sustainable/environmentally conscious. These companies would then lead the pack while netting great profits in the process and inspiring other businesses to help to save the world.
If you could tell young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?
The most important thing young people can do at this stage in history is to watch the film, If You Love This Planet, which is available on my website and linked below. This film shows the harsh reality of what the Russian Ukrainian war could mean to all of us. I would also suggest that they visit my website and watch every film and video and read every article located there. Then that will help to guide people in their decisions to use their democracy. For instance, visiting your elected representatives to educate and persuade them to make laws to prevent global warming and to eliminate nuclear weapons.
There is a wonderful law that is currently before the UN that was instigated by two Australians — a treaty to abolish nuclear weapons which has been ratified by over 60 countries. Those who haven’t signed include America, France, England, Russia, China, Israel, India, and Pakistan and North Korea — the nuclear nations. To me, their arrogance is unbelievable. To help make progress on making sure this law becomes a reality, threaten your politicians with political extinction. Each year, certain politicians pocket millions from evil military corporations and the fossil fuel companies and represent the interests of these organizations. Find out who represents you, from where they receive their financial backing, and make an appointment to see them face to face. Tell them that if they don’t represent you and your interests, threaten that you will make sure they don’t get reelected. Through door knocking and organising community meetings in response to their actions, we can hold our politicians accountable. In truth, politicians are, in fact, our representatives and we are their leaders.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
How can our readers follow you online?
You can find more information about me on my website, helencaldicott.com, or on https://expertconnectionpr.com/dr-helen-caldicott/. If You Love This Planet is available on my website and YouTube, as is my follow up interview revisiting the film which is also available on my website. I’m also on Twitter (@DrHCaldicott) and Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/helen.m.caldicott).
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!