Pediatrician Helen Caldicott Rallies Her Fellow Doctors Against the Bomb

updated 11/30/1981 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/30/1981 01:00AM

It's simple,' says a friend. 'She just wants to save her children—and the rest of the world'

She's been called Boston's Joan of Arc, but these days Dr. Helen Caldicott speaks more of doom than deliverance. The 43-year-old pediatrician is fast becoming the most visible and vehement critic of Reagan rearmament and La Pasionaria of the international clamor over American B-1 bombers, MX missiles and neutron bombs. Last year the Australian-born mother of three resigned her dual posts at Children's Hospital in Boston and Harvard Medical School to devote full time to Physicians for Social Responsibility, a disarmament coalition of 7,000 medical students and health professionals of which she is president. "I believe in survival of the fittest," she states simply, "and that the fittest among us will see where we're going and save us."

Caldicott's crusade now keeps her on the road a third of the year and away from the 10-room Tudor-style home outside Boston she shares with husband Bill, 43, a pediatric radiologist. She has visited nearly a dozen countries (including the U.S.S.R.) and in recent months crisscrossed the U.S. delivering gruesome medical descriptions of nuclear war. To critics who have dubbed her presentation The Helen Caldicott Horror Show, she answers, "We doctors should start using pictures from Hiroshima and Nagasaki. We stop people from smoking by showing them people dying from cancer."

Such tactics rankle Administration officials who are pressing for a nuclear buildup, but Helen insists her attacks are bipartisan. "Carter was a wolf in sheep's clothing; Reagan is a wolf in wolf's clothing," she says grimly. "The only way we will survive is for us to mature and negotiate with our opponent, which now is Russia. This is not naive. What is naive is to keep building nuclear weapons so eventually we'll annihilate ourselves." She has carried her message to Soviet doctors, including Leonid Brezhnev's cardiologist, and has argued for nuclear disarmament with Soviet U.N. Ambassador Anatoliy Dobrynin.

While Caldicott was growing up in Australia, her father was a factory manager and her mother an interior designer. "My mother had a lot of anger," says Helen, the oldest of three children. "She kicked me around the floor and used to hit me with coat hangers and brushes. Dad belted me too. But I assumed it was normal. I loved them dearly." When she was 14, Helen read Nevil Shute's On the Beach, an apocalyptic novel of post-World War III. "I remember looking at the hills surrounding Adelaide," she says, "and thinking, if the bomb were dropped, the hills would reflect the radiation back into the city." Following medical school and marriage, Caldicott settled into general practice in Adelaide. In 1969, however, she contracted a near-fatal case of hepatitis from a patient, and by the time she recovered, "I felt I owed the world something." The French were testing nuclear bombs in the South Pacific, and Caldicott led a grass-roots campaign against the fallout. "Every time the French blew up another bomb, I was asked back onto the evening news to talk about babies, strontium 90 and leukemia," she recalls. When the protests helped stop the atmospheric tests, Caldicott carried on with a campaign against the hazards faced by Australian uranium miners.

After the Caldicotts moved their medical practices to Boston in 1977, Helen drew the attention of American activists with a book titled Nuclear Madness: What You Can Do! In 1978 she summoned 10 fellow doctors to the library of her home and helped revive Physicians for Social Responsibility, a long-dormant antinuke organization first formed in 1962. After the Three Mile Island incident in 1979, the group gained 500 new members and, says Helen, "We were on our way." To Caldicott, who by then had become a specialist in cystic fibrosis, the threat of nuclear war had come to seem like the greatest sickness of all. "I couldn't treat little children," Helen explains, "knowing all the while they may be incinerated. That seemed to me bad medicine."

Now free of her medical duties, Helen rises early and fixes breakfast for Bill and her children Penny, 17, and William, 15. Eldest son Philip, 18, lives in California. Her life is more than scouring Pentagon reports and doing other research for speeches. She cultivates a backyard garden, handles the family sewing, ironing and cooking, paints in oils (her great-grandfather was known as the Australian Audubon) and plays clarinet. But music and art have had to yield to her antinuke crusading. Last year Caldicott launched a spin-off, Medical Campaign Against Nuclear War, a London-based doctors' group that now has 1,100 members, as well as the parent-oriented Women's Party for Survival. "The most creative thing I ever did was have my babies," she explains. "I am determined they will live a natural life. It is my strongest instinct."

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