Caldicott, Helen (1938—)

views updated

Caldicott, Helen (1938—)

Australian pediatrician, anti-nuclear campaigner, conservationist, and dynamic orator. Pronunciation: COLD-ee-cot. Born Helen Mary Broinowski on August 7, 1938, in Melbourne, Victoria, Australia; daughter of Philip Broinowski (a paint factory manager) and Mary Mona Enyd (Coffey) Broinowski (an interior designer); attended University of Adelaide Medical

School, Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery, 1961, Paediatrics, 1975; married William Caldicott, December 8, 1962 (divorced 1988); children: Phillip (b. 1964); Penelope Mary Caldicott (b. 1965); William (b. 1967).

Prizes and awards: British Medical Association Prize for Clinical Medicine (1960); prize for Surgical Anatomy (1961); Margaret Mead award for defense of the environment, Ghandi Peace Prize, Thomas Merton Peace Prize, and Boston Ethical Society's Humanistof the Year (1980); UN Association for Australia Peace Medal Award (1985); Nobel Peace Prize, presented to Physicians for Social Responsibility (1985); (with Bishop Desmond Tutu and Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley) John-Roger Foundation Integrity Award (1985); nominated for Nobel Peace Prize (1986); Academy Award for best short documentary, If You Love This Planet (1983); numerous honorary degrees.

Brought about cessation of French atmospheric nuclear testing in the Pacific (1971–72); moved to U.S. (1977); published Nuclear Madness (1978); resigned as pediatrician (1980); resurrected, and was national president of, Physicians for Social Responsibility (1978–83); founded Women's Party for Survival (WPFS, 1980); founded Women's Action for Nuclear Disarmament (WAND, 1980); published Missile Envy (1984); nominated for Nobel Peace Prize (1986); returned to Australia (1986); founded Green Labor political faction within the Australian Labor Party (1988); ran (unsuccessfully) for Parliament (1990); published If You Love This Planet (1992); published autobiography A Desperate Passion (1996).

In 1938, the world was reluctantly heading towards World War II. Germany and Japan were building up their military forces while other nations watched uneasily. Nuclear fission, a process wherein an atom's nucleus is broken into pieces, releasing huge amounts of energy, had just been discovered, and the first atomic bomb was only seven years away. That same year, Helen Caldicott, who would become the brightest star in the anti-nuclear movement, was born in Melbourne, the capital of Victoria, Australia.

Christened Helen Mary Broinowski, she was the eldest child of Philip, the manager of a paint factory, and Mary Broinowski , an interior designer. They were intelligent parents and encouraged their first born—a younger brother Richard and sister Susan would soon follow—to become aware of world affairs. Where her father was loving, Caldicott's mother Mary, described by Caldicott as "intuitive and politically astute" and a voracious reader, was emotionally distant. At 18 months, Helen was left in the care of a stranger for two weeks. In her autobiography, A Desperate Passion, she claims this left her with an inordinate fear of abandonment that has remained throughout her life.

Soon after Helen's first birthday, in August 1939, Australia went to war, allied with Great Britain against Nazi Germany. For the next six years, her childhood was affected by wartime life, with clothing, gas and food rationing. When the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima in 1945, a siren sounded in her primary school, and the teacher asked, "What's that?" Caldicott was the only child in the class who knew. "The war's ended," she replied. Caldicott was savvy enough to know the bomb would end the war but had no concept of what a bomb was—yet.

As a young child, Caldicott did not fit in at school and was often teased. "I was different," she recalled. "I don't know why. I just was. I've always been creative, and believed I could do whatever I wanted to do." She was going to be a doctor, because that way she could "help people more." She read widely. As a teenager, she read Australian author Nevil Shute's novel On the Beach, about the devastation after a nuclear war, and was shocked into activism for life. After that, she read everything she could about nuclear weapons, appalled that scientists made them in the first place. In the 1950s, when nuclear weapons testing was just beginning, most people were unaware that fallout from these tests (the radioactive dust that falls after an explosion) could cause cancer and genetic damage.

In 1954, the Broinowski family moved to Adelaide, the capital of South Australia. Two years later, Caldicott entered the University of Adelaide Medical School, where she learned more about the effects of radiation, especially on babies and children who are much more susceptible than adults. Horrified, she tried to raise concern among her fellow medical students, "but the guys would just look up from their poker games … so I shut up." In 1961, she graduated with a Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery, second in her class that final year. She married Bill Caldicott, also a doctor (radiology), in December 1962, and over the next several years as she worked as a general practitioner in Adelaide, the couple had three children: Phillip (born 1964), Penny (born 1965), and William (born 1967).

Between 1966 and 1969, the family lived in America, where she had a fellowship at Harvard Medical School in Boston. They returned to Adelaide in 1970, just after Caldicott's mother died, which was a terrible shock. Six months after she began working at the renal unit in Queen Elizabeth Hospital, Caldicott accidentally pricked her finger on a contaminated syringe needle and contracted serum hepatitis, which infects the liver. She was so ill that she nearly died. "Like many people who have faced death, you feel you've been saved for something," she said upon recovery. "Life becomes a gift. There had to be a reason why you didn't die then." After working in general practice for a few more years, Caldicott returned to medical school to study pediatrics. As an intern at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital, she set up a clinic for sufferers of cystic fibrosis and became a specialist in treating this hereditary, and often fatal, childhood disease.

She also became politically active. "Somehow I felt wary of adults—that they weren't making the world safe. Then one day I thought: 'My God, I'm an adult. I'm part of this.' That's when I began to realise that one person could make a difference." Her intense commitment to the world's survival, strengthened by her love for her children and young patients, was influenced by Bertrand Russell (1872–1970), British philosopher, mathematician, social critic, and writer. Russell's ban-the-bomb movement had given rise to the International Atmospheric Test Ban Treaty in 1962.

In 1971, Caldicott learned that the French had been doing atmospheric nuclear tests in the South Pacific, over their island colony of Mururoa, for the last five years, in direct contravention of this treaty. Incensed, especially since she fully realized that the dangerous fallout was upwind of Australia, she wrote a letter about the medical effects of radioactive drinking water to the Adelaide newspaper, The Advertiser. In doing so, she became the unofficial medical spokeswoman on radioactivity and was interviewed on television each time the French detonated a bomb.

In 1972, Caldicott received a leaked confidential report from a sympathizer in the state government of South Australia, which showed that the drinking water in that state did have a high level of radiation. She revealed these findings to the public and continued to speak out and gain support. Once they knew the facts, hundreds of thousands of Australians were outraged and demanded the French stop testing. Spontaneous and widespread boycotting of French products resulted; postal workers even refused to deliver mail from France.

With the support of Dr. Jim Cairns of the Australian Labor Party (ALP), the non-conservative party led at that time by Gough Whitlam, Caldicott headed a delegation to Paris in 1972. Their efforts were ultimately successful. The recently elected ALP, which had strong anti-nuclear policies, listened to the Australian public and, along with the New Zealand government, took France before the International Court of Justice in 1973. The court's ruling was ambiguous and did not force an end to the testing, but France decided to conduct its future nuclear tests underground.

Two years later, huge uranium deposits were discovered in Australia. Uranium is bombarded with neutrons to produce plutonium—a deadly radioactive element named after Pluto, the Roman god of the dead—and is used as a reactor fuel and in nuclear weapons. As Caldicott pointed out repeatedly, there is no safe level of plutonium for the living—even one atom can cause cancer. Many people in the Australian government wanted to extract this mineral for sale to other countries. Caldicott did not agree.

When I was 15, I read Nevil Shute's On the Beach and that was it. I immediately began to question what humans were doing to their world, and I've never stopped.

—Helen Caldicott

In Australia, trade unions—comprised of workers in each trade, such as mining—wield considerable political power. Trade-union leaders represent their workers throughout the country, striving to ensure reasonable pay and working conditions for their members. To keep uranium in the ground, Helen Caldicott needed the mining, as well as other trade-union support, because the government and media were ignoring her. Each trade union laconically agreed to let her talk to their membership, predicting her failure. With every session, "I would convince them in ten minutes," said Caldicott. "I just talked about the effect [of uranium] on their testicles and what radiation does to the genes and sperm, and I'd talk about nuclear war and what it means to their children." The Australian Council of Trade Unions passed a resolution banning the mining, transportation, and sale of uranium, which lasted from 1975 to 1982.

The Caldicott family moved to the United States in 1975, returned to Adelaide briefly the following year, and then went back to Boston in 1977, where Caldicott was a fellow in cystic fibrosis and an associate in medicine at the Children's Hospital Medical Center and an instructor in pediatrics at the Harvard Medical School. Bill was also working at Harvard as a pediatric radiologist. Caldicott was getting more deeply involved in her anti-nuclear campaigning in her less-than-free time, which kept her away from her young family, causing conflict at home. "I tried to make sure they had a future. It's sad, and yet it's more important to do this for them now than make sure they cleaned their teeth." Bill carried much of the child-rearing load during these years. In 1976, Caldicott had offered to stop because, she said, the family was feeling "a bit rejected," but in the end they urged her to continue. As the anti-nuclear movement became "all-embracing," Caldicott felt guilty when she "refused invitations to speak."

During these years in America, she published her first book, Nuclear Madness: What You Can Do, in 1978. In it, she describes in laymen's terms the medical consequences of nuclear war. She also revived the dormant group Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR) and totally energized the organization. This Boston-based group works to publicize the medical consequences of nuclear war. A PSR ad in the New England Journal of Medicine, in March 1979, happened to coincide with the Three Mile Island incident in Pennsylvania, where the nuclear reactor core suffered a partial meltdown, releasing radioactive material, and forcing the evacuation of thousands of residents. More than 500 doctors signed up, and thereafter membership increased steadily. Caldicott was the national president of PSR until 1983, when she would resign over differences in approach. She remained opposed to nuclear power as well as weapons, while she felt that PSR had become too conservative, focusing only on arms-control rather than being totally anti-nuclear. In the late 1980s, the group numbered around 30,000 and won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1985, as part of the umbrella organization International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War.

During the 1980s, Caldicott also lead U.S. medical delegations to Russia to discuss nuclear issues with high-ranking officials and helped start British, German, and Swedish medical campaigns, as well as organizations for women to fight nuclear threats. In 1980, she had founded Women's Action for Nuclear Disarmament (WAND), an influential Washington-based lobby group. She is convinced that women can have, and need to have, more political power and effect for the world to be saved.

That same year, Caldicott resigned from her medical career, so that she could work on the anti-nuclear campaign full-time, and in 1984 her husband Bill also resigned to help in the cause—difficult decisions for both of them. The year 1980 also saw a change in Caldicott's spirituality. Raised as an agnostic, she was for many years an atheist but became a non-sectarian believer in God as the life force of the Universe. "Now I believe God is life," she wrote, "the DNA molecule, reality. Prayer gives me strength. I know I'm on the side of truth, that I'm doing the right thing, and that inspires me."

The 1982 National Film Board of Canada's short documentary, If You Love This Planet, features an attractive, elegantly dressed woman, with auburn hair and intense pale-blue eyes, delivering one of her typically shocking, scientifically precise, medically accurate and emotional speeches about exactly what happens when a nuclear bomb lands on your city. Helen Caldicott at her best. (Caldicott was thinking of naming her 1996 autobiography, "If You Wear Pearls, You Can Say Anything," she told Hubert Herring of The New York Times. "If you look attractive, people consider you trustworthy, and they tend to believe your logic, however radical.") The documentary was classified as "foreign propaganda" by the American Justice Department, which inadvertently helped publicize the film, and it won an Oscar for best short-subject documentary in 1982.

That same year, following a lecture, Caldicott met Ronald Reagan's daughter, Patti Davis . An impressed Davis felt that Caldicott would be able to influence her father and arranged an unprecedented one-hour private meeting with the president to discuss nuclear issues. It was "the most shocking experience of my life," she said in her 1984 book, Missile Envy, "You expect the President to be intelligent and well-informed. I found the opposite." Caldicott would later call him a "nice old guy," but "everything he said to me was inaccurate."

In the 1984 election, she campaigned full-time for Walter Mondale, but Reagan was reelected. By 1986, Caldicott was exhausted mentally and physically. Dubbed Henny Penny, a Cold War Zelig, and a dupe for communists, she faced constant opposition and criticism in America and wanted to go home to Australia. She announced her resignation from her anti-nuclear campaigning. Wrote Janine Perrett in The Australian:

There is no doubt that the demise of the "stirrer" who has been called everything from the mother of the anti-nuclear movement to a modern day Joan of Arc is not universally hailed as a tragedy. Along with the plaudits have been bitter criticism that her left-wing anti-nuclear policies are out of step with today's conservative mood.

Even so, her break from dismal and emotional public lectures came just before Chernobyl, the kind of nuclear disaster she had feared and predicted for years. Caldicott became quite discouraged. She felt that all the marches, meetings, lectures, and papers had little impact. She was ignored by Reagan and believed that if Chernobyl had happened in America, affecting thousands of Americans rather than Russians, it would have changed government policy in ways that she could not. "I suddenly realised that I was sort of arrogant to think I could save the world. I know I can't do it with my own intellect and ego." The Caldicotts moved back to Australia the same year, settling in Bermagui, a small town on the south coast of New South Wales (NSW). This was also the year Caldicott was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Back home, Caldicott spent time swimming, cooking, and reading (she was particularly interested in Gandhi). She occasionally gave a public lecture but was glad to be away from the depressing subject and constant nightmares—for a time. By 1988, she was back, talking with the Australian union movement about uranium mining once again. Around this time, she also "came to a sudden realisation," reported Wayne Crawford in The Mercury, "that while she was campaigning energetically to stop the world blowing itself up in an Armageddon-type holocaust, the earth was quietly disintegrating beneath her feet." She became a fervent conservationist and put all her skills as a speaker and campaigner into this new mission.

In 1988, her husband Bill left her unexpectedly. As traumatic as it was, the experience strengthened her. That same year, she founded the Green Labor Party, which developed strong conservationist policies, such as advocating the close-down of American bases in Australia, no port visits by nuclear ships, no uranium mining or wood chipping, environmental clean-ups, and limiting family size to one child per couple.

Caldicott had been a long-term and steadfast member of the Australian Labor Party and was chosen as the Green Labor candidate in the 1990 federal (national) election for the seat of North Sydney. In a drastic change, however, she resigned from the ALP, claiming that the NSW head office was trying to sabotage her campaign. She then moved to Byron Bay, on the coast in northern NSW, and campaigned as an Independent candidate for that seat. She lost in a closerun election.

In 1992, she brought out her next book, If You Love This Planet, and continued to develop her environmentally and spiritually peaceful lifestyle. A year later, she moved to Leongatha, Victoria, to join the "All One Voice" community, a non-religious group that is concerned about the state of the earth and employs bartering, permaculture, wind and solar power, and runs classes for children and adults. She bought and renovated the Koonwarra Store, where the community runs a shop and cafe, using organic produce. She also bought a home in East Hampton, Long Island, New York, and soon learned that there were three nuclear reactors 15 miles away across Long Island Sound, at the Millstone power plant in Connecticut.

The second edition of Nuclear Madness, including sections about Chernobyl and post-Cold War issues, was brought out in 1994, her autobiography in 1996. "I used to feel I had to save the world by myself," she wrote. "Now I see I am part of the whole. I keep myself clear, not angry but pretty clear. I feel so good now."


Arnold, J., and D. Morris, eds. Monash Biographical Dictionary of Twentieth Century Australia. Port Melbourne: Reed Reference Publishing, 1994.

Atkinson, Alan. "For the Love of Peace—and Family," in The Advertiser. Adelaide, April 28, 1983, p. 2.

Baker, Candida. "The Candidates with Causes," in The Age. Melbourne, March 30, 1990, p. 13.

Buchanan, Rachel. "The Greening of Helen Caldicott," in The Age. Melbourne, July 30, 1993, p. 16.

Caldicott, Helen. Nuclear Madness—What You Can Do! Queensland: Jacaranda Press, 1978.

Contemporary Australians, 1995–96. Port Melbourne: Reed Reference Australia, 1995, pp. 66–67.

Crawford, Wayne. "A mission to save the Earth," in The Mercury. Hobart, February 15, 1989, pp. 15–17.

Dalley, Helen. "A Triumph in America for an Australian Anti-nuclear Crusader," in The Australian Women's Weekly. August 4, 1982, pp. 29–37.

Day, Samuel H., Jr. "Eclipse of the Peace Movement," in The Progressive. September 1996.

Game, Peter. "The Doctor's Fall-out with Reagan," in The Herald. Melbourne, March 6, 1986, p. 6.

Herring, Hubert B. "Dr. Helen Caldicott: The Whole Planet is Her Patient" (for The New York Times News Service), in The [New London] Day, November 11, 1996.

"I Never Thought Bill Would Leave Me," in ITA. December 1989, pp. 28–31.

Molony, John. The Penguin Bicentennial History of Australia. South Yarra, Australia: Viking Penguin, 1987.

Moritz, Charles, ed. Current Biography Yearbook 1983. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1984, pp. 41–45.

Perrett, Janine. "Helen Caldicott Tired of Fighting a Lone War," in The Australian. Canberra, May 27, 1986, p. 14.

Smith, Jillian. "A Voice Heard all over the World," in The Advertiser. Adelaide, May 6, 1989, p. 12.

Stocker, Carol. "The Fallout from Caldicott's Passion," in the Boston Globe. December 2, 1996.

Tarrant, Deborah. "Caldicott: the Power of Nuclear Anger," in The Australian. Canberra, May 2, 1984, p. 8.

Uglow, Jennifer, ed. The Macmillan Dictionary of Women's Biography, 2nd ed. London: Macmillan, 1989.

Whittaker, Mark, and Phil Teese. "Read Me My Rights, Says Peace Practitioner," in The Australian. Canberra, March 26, 1990, p. 3.

suggested reading:

Caldicott, Helen. Missile Envy. NY: Bantam Books, 1984.

——. If You Love This Planet. NY: W.W. Norton, 1992.

——, ed. Nuclear Madness. Rev. NY: W.W. Norton, 1994.

——. A Desperate Passion (autobiography). NY: W.W. Norton, 1996.

Shute, Nevil. On the Beach. Melbourne and London: Heinemann, 1957.

related media:

If You Love This Planet (26 min.), produced by National Film Board of Canada, 1982 (Academy Award for Best Documentary short).

Eight Minutes to Midnight (60 mins.), documentary portrait of Caldicott produced by Physicians for Social Responsibility, 1981 (Academy Award nomination for Best Documentary).

Denise Sutherland , freelance writer, Canberra, Australia

About this article

Caldicott, Helen (1938—)

Updated About content Print Article


Caldicott, Helen (1938—)