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An Interview with Dr. Helen Caldicott, 2019 Lifetime Achievement Award Recipient

Photo: Heide Smith

This year at the 2019 PSR Visionary Leaders Awards, we are honoring outstanding contributions to the advancement of nuclear weapons abolition and addressing environmental hazards to health, including the climate crisis. 

Dr. Helen Caldicott, a past PSR president and highly influential advocate who played a pivotal role in PSR’s work for many years, will be honored with PSR’s distinguished Lifetime Achievement Award. 

PSR interviewed Dr. Caldicott about how she came to do this work, what inspires her, and her advice for young people just starting to get involved in advocacy.

Q: What first drew you to this type of work?

I read On The Beach by an Australian, Neville Shute, when I was a teenager, which was about a nuclear war that occurred in the northern hemisphere. The last people to die from the fallout were people in Melbourne where I lived. The accounts of their deaths were terrifying, and that was the end of the human race.

Q: How have the health impacts of nuclear weapons and climate change-related policies informed your work?

Well, I’m  actually a paediatrician specialising in cystic fibrosis, the most common fatal genetic disease of childhood. However, I wrote a letter in 1971 to the local paper in Adelaide, South Australia where I lived about the medical dangers of fallout from the French [nuclear] tests in the Pacific, as the city water supply was showing radiation from the tests. That created enormous publicity and outrage, and as a result the tests went underground. Naturally, as a physician, I always understood intrinsically about the health effects of radiation exposure, and then I wrote a book in 1992 called If You Love This Planet about global warming, industrial pollution, overpopulation, deforestation, etc. I learned much researching this book, as I have for all the other books that I have written—always from a global preventive medical perspective.

Q: What would be your advice to a young person just starting to get involved in this type of work?

Please educate yourself by reading thoroughly about these specific subjects, then you will have the relevant knowledge and ammunition to win any debate and more specifically to educate and lobby politicians, most of whom are medically and scientifically illiterate. As Thomas Jefferson said, “An informed democracy will behave in a responsible fashion.”

Q: When it comes to changes or advances in nuclear weapons and climate policies, what is your greatest hope for the coming year?

I’m afraid at this stage my prognosis is grim re both subjects. I see little if any movement by the body politic to remedy these extraordinarily dangerous issues that presently confront the human race, let alone all other species.

Q: Who or what is your greatest inspiration to do the work that you do?

As a paediatrician, I do this for all the world’s children, let alone the incredible beauty and diversity of nature and all living species, which I worship.

For more information about the awards reception, where we will also honor Marylia Kelley, cofounder of Tri-Valley CAREs; Kelly Campbell and Regna Merritt, Oregon PSR chapter leaders; and the Sunrise Movement, visit psr.org/visionaryleaders.