Although Helen Caldicott (born 1938) started her career as a physician, she is perhaps best known for her anti-nuclear activism and for authoring several books which dealt with the issues around nuclear energy and broader environmental concerns.
Helen Caldicott has always maintained that the United States needed to set an example for the rest of the world in carrying out sound environmental practices. Much of her life was devoted to activism; in earlier years she focused on educating people about the dangers of nuclear energy. In the late 1980s and beyond when the threat of nuclear war had lessened, Caldicott focused on broader environmental issues. She decried the population explosion and corporate practices which harmed the environment. She insisted that the responsibility for sound ethical policy lay with political leaders; and that the media had a role in educating the public about the true extent of the earth's environmental problems. Her activist work was melded with her medical background; she had a scientific and clinical interest in the effects of nuclear energy and advocated knowledgeably on the harm that nuclear energy could cause to humans and other life on earth.
Caldicott was born Helen Broinowski in Melbourne, Australia on August 7, 1938. She was later to state that she was lucky to live as long as she had, given the environmental toxins she was exposed to as a child. Her father died of cancer at age 51 after a lifetime of constructing houses with asbestos; she often assisted him by handing him the asbestos material. Her mother died at 58 and beat Caldicott severely as a child, even though Caldicott once commented that her mother was "the most fascinating person I ever knew, the most intelligent, and really my best friend when I grew up."
She attended college at the University of Adelaide Medical School and graduated in 1961 with the Australian equivalent of a Doctor of Medicine. She went on to work in pediatrics and general practice; later she founded and ran a cystic fibrosis clinic at a hospital in Adelaide. During this time, she met and married a fellow physician, William Caldicott, in 1962. They went on to have three children.
Roots of Early Activism
Caldicott's interest in activism began to surface publicly when in 1971, she warned the Australian public about the French government's plans to conduct atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons in the South Pacific. In her own words, her first speech as an activist was to five little old ladies at the YWCA in Adelaide. Caldicott backed her arguments against nuclear energy by pointing out the extent to which nuclear fallout was already present in food and water. Caldicott was able to build successful coalitions with the public, other scientists, and the media in opposing the French testing; the results of her activism included boycotts of French products and demonstrations.
In another victory for Caldicott and Australian antinuclear activists, the Labor Party was elected into office in 1972 with opposition to testing as part of their platform. Caldicott also pushed for an Australian ban on the export of uranium, a substance used in the process to create nuclear energy. The suggested ban was initially opposed by mining and government interests but in 1975 she succeeded in getting the Australian Council of Trade Unions to ban the mining, transport, and sale of uranium. The ban remained in place until 1982.
Caldicott continued her medical career when in 1975, she and her family relocated to Boston, Massachusetts, so that her husband could pursue a research appointment at Harvard. Initially working at Children's Hospital Medical Center in Boston, she also served as a pediatric instructor at Harvard Medical School between 1977-1980.
Stint as Author
She published her first book in 1978, Nuclear Madness: What Can You Do! The book, which she co-authored with Nancy Herrington and Nahum Stiskin, explained for the layperson the issues and the consequences of nuclear technology. After the book was published, Caldicott made numerous appearances on television and the lecture circuit to promote the book's message. By 1981, the emphasis in her life was activism rather than medicine. In an article in Newsday, she explained that "I felt that nuclear war was so imminent, I couldn't in conscience keep treating children with cystic fibrosis when the whole world was threatened. I practice global preventive medicine."
Led Activist Organizations
Caldicott's antinuclear activism did not remain limited to authoring books. In 1978 she took charge of and revived a pre-existing organization called Physicians for Social Responsibility. Redirecting the organization's vision to focus on the health risks of nuclear fallout, Caldicott increased membership in the organization to 30,000 by 1982, particularly after the Three Mile Island incident in Pennsylvania during 1979.
In 1980, she took her organizational skills further and founded a lobbying group, Women's Action for Nuclear Disarmament. Organizational leadership was not without growing pains, however; Caldicott stepped down as president of Physicians for Social Responsibility in 1983, claiming that her vision and the vision of the membership had diverged too widely. The organization had become increasingly bureaucratic and some members found her either overpowering or lacking in ability to lobby and lead. One climax of her activist role may have occurred in 1982, when she and others spoke to a crowd of one million at a peace rally in New York City's Central Park.
Documentary Film and Foray into Politics
Caldicott's views on the nuclear industry were represented in a 1982 Academy Award documentary film If You Love This Planet. Although the film was produced in Canada, the U.S. government controlled its distribution and labeled it political propaganda. Caldicott generally lacked trust in most political leaders, although she was a great admirer of Mikhail Gorbachev of the Soviet Union and personally thanked him for ending the Cold War. She had less respect for then-president Ronald Reagan, whom she met in 1983 and who astounded her with what she called his ignorance on nuclear issues. According to Caldicott, Reagan told her that anyone who supported the nuclear freeze movement was either a "KGB dupe or a Soviet agent." Caldicott also differed with the Pope regarding population control, although she admired the social justice tradition of the Catholic Church.
In an attempt to make further impact in U.S. politics, Caldicott lent her name and efforts to the Mondale presidential campaign in 1984, even though he largely ignored her ideas. Caldicott was stunned when his running mate, Geraldine Ferraro, pledged to pushed the nuclear button if necessary. Mondale's defeat served to crush Caldicott's psyche even further. However, Caldicott's contributions to the world and humanity were publicly recognized when she was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize in 1985. She was also the recipient of other humanitarian awards.
Hiatus and Return
In 1987, Caldicott suffered another blow in her life when her husband of 25 years decided to leave their marriage. She retreated from the public eye until 1991, living in seclusion in Australia. That was the amount of time she needed, she claimed, to work through her grief. She emerged ready to speak again, not only on nuclear issues but on broader environmental issues which seemed relevant at the time. Her focus remained on the health impacts which stemmed from environmental problems and she believed that the U.S. needed to serve as a model for the rest of the world in taking appropriate action. Caldicott felt that in particular, corporations needed to be more concerned with the health of people and less concerned with the bottom line at the expense of the environment. Additionally, she stated that the media needed to be doing a better job of educating people on global environmental issues.
Caldicott continued to publish books that addressed nuclear energy; Missile Envy: The Arms Race and Nuclear War was published in 1984. She also published If You Love This Planet: A Plan to Heal the Earth in 1992, the book went beyond nuclear energy and addressed a range of environmental issues. In 1996, she published her autobiography, A Desperate Passion. In the book she credits the power of women, who she believes could make an effective activist force because they are "much more open with their feelings and the truth, and they're one of the golden keys to the salvation of this planet." Caldicott advocated for an increase of women in political positions, stating that even though women made up 53 percent of the American population, they comprised only two percent of the congressional delegation.
In the late 1990s, Caldicott remained a vocal opponent of nuclear energy when she spoke out against a U.S. proposal to sell nuclear reactors to China; a deal that was mentioned when Chinese Premier Jiang Zemin visited the U.S. in late 1997 to discuss human rights in China. She criticized the fact that the deal was being offered as a solution to global warming, claiming that tremendous amounts of fossil fuel were utilized in the construction of the reactors and of the storage rods for spent nuclear fuel. She also remarked on the irony of the human rights issue, claiming that nuclear reactors in China would violate human rights and would impact human life, either by death, genetic destruction, or disease. She continued to maintain that the United States needed to set an example for the rest of the world in abstaining from the use of nuclear power. She also continued to discuss her views in the media by hosting a New York radio show called "Fair Dinkum."
Further Reading on Helen Broinowski Caldicott M. D
Caldicott, Helen Broinowski, A Desperate Passion: An Autobiography, W.W. Norton & Company, 1996.
Caldicott, If You Love This Planet: A Plan to Heal the Earth, revised edition, W.W. Norton & Company, 1992.
Caldicott, Helen Broinowski, Nancy Herrington, and Nahum Stiskin, Nuclear Madness: What You Can Do, W.W. Norton & Company, 1994.
E Magazine, January 11, 1997.
Independent on Sunday, April 27, 1997.
Los Angeles Times, October 3, 1997; November 30, 1997.
Newsday, May 21, 1996.
The Progressive, September 1, 1996.