It sounds like a set-up for a joke: a bearded man creeps into the office of the Medical Campaign against Nuclear Weapons, nervously asks for a copy of their latest publication on the medical consequences of nuclear warfare, and then quietly slips out. He is a civil servant, working in defence.
But aside from the amusing image of this tiptoeing bearded chap, the letter unveils some interesting truths about a period of intense hostility between East and West. It demonstrates the air of secrecy surrounding nuclear issues, the lack of concrete information publically available on the grave implications of a nuclear accident or attack, and the outspoken position of doctors in this fight against the proliferation of weapons.
This letter was found in the archive of the Medical Campaign against Nuclear Weapons (MCANW), later Medact, which has just been catalogued at the Wellcome Library. The archive tells the story of an organisation of doctors, nurses and health professionals who used their medical expertise to campaign against nuclear weapons in the latter Cold War years. These doctors argued that nuclear weapons posed the ultimate threat to human health, and that, as medical professionals, they had a duty of care to their patients to warn them of these deadly consequences.
Discovering this letter was one of those delightful strokes of serendipity that you get working with archive collections. I was cataloguing a fairly innocuous file of sale orders and correspondence relating to a MCANW publication, when this letter caught my eye. Hidden among receipts and routine requests, it was something a little out of the ordinary, which, to me, seems to speak volumes about the medical anti-nuclear campaign itself.
The publication that our bearded friend asked after was MCANW’s 1991 publication by Dr E Waterson, Nuclear Emergencies: a GP’s guide. This publication set out to answer questions about what to do in the event of a nuclear disaster, based on the assumption that many people reach out to their local doctor for advice and reassurance in times of need. It was written in the shadow of the Chernobyl disaster, to provide non-alarmist, practical advice for doctors to give to concerned patients. Written in a Q&A format, it equips doctors to answer commonly asked questions including: ‘does boiling the vegetables stop the radioactivity, doctor?’; ‘is it safe for my child to play on wet grass?’ and ‘my son was out all day in the rain in the hills doing the Duke of Edinburgh – will he get cancer, Doctor?’. These questions are answered with a doctor’s authority, with detailed, scientific answers, which cut through the spin and comforting reassurance given in the Government’s Protect and Survive public information series.
The secretive civil servant, then, reminds us that the nuclear issue was a contentious political battleground, where reliable information often seemed scarce or hard to come by. The Government’s own position on coping in the event of a nuclear attack was that it was a case of preparedness, and that ‘the dangers which you and your family will face in this situation can be reduced’ – provided you follow the step-by-step advice given in Protect and Survive. This information series included a booklet and a series of short films, intended to be shown in the event of a national emergency. It included advice on preparing a fall-out shelter, rationing supplies (including a rather stern reminder to pack your tin opener), building a make-shift toilet, and – most distressingly – how to label the bodies of casualties. The advice given was widely ridiculed by anti-war groups like MCANW and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, who sought to undermine the idea that civil defence could be of any practical use in the face of a nuclear explosion. They argued that the destruction caused by an attack would be unimaginable, with bombs many times stronger than those that devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki; closing the curtains, hiding under a table, or stockpiling chicken soup would not offer any protection from the devastation of the bomb.
This voice of protest among local authorities, as well as peace campaigning groups like MCANW, pulled the government’s position on civil defence into question. The depiction of nuclear destruction was also brought into focus through popular culture, with Raymond Briggs’ graphic novel and film When the Wind Blows (1986) and Barry Hines’ distressing BBC docudrama Threads (1984), illustrating the harrowing consequences of atomic weapons. Both sought to undermine the authority of civil defence, by ridiculing the notion implied in Protect and Survive: that a nuclear war could be survivable.
Going back to the bearded man, perhaps it is not surprising that a member of the defence establishment would want to know what doctors thought about the impact of nuclear emergencies. Doctors and nurses had the medical experience and expertise to judge how the National Health Service would cope with the overwhelming number of patients, without medical equipment, running water, or sufficient supplies of drugs; they were also the ones who would have been expected to treat and care for casualties in the event of an explosion.
With concerns informed by years of medical training, doctors in the Medical Campaign were driven by a sense of professional responsibility and social conscience. As Alice Bell notes in a recent Guardian article, there was a proliferation of anti-war groups identified by particular careers in the peace movement, including such varied professional groups as Architects for Peace; Musicians against Nuclear Arms; Teachers for Peace; and Lawyers for Nuclear Disarmament. These groups demonstrate how the nuclear issue was not just a political concern, but something which galvanised and mobilised all sorts of individuals. This letter is a reminder of just that: of the vital role that doctors and medical professionals played in the nuclear debate, speaking out against the bomb with compassion, courage and conscience.
What the letter doesn’t tell us is what happened next, and I can’t help wondering what this secretive defence employee made of the booklet he picked up that day…
More information about the Medact archive:
The Medact archive is now fully catalogued and available for research at the Wellcome Library. The archive can be searched on the Wellcome’s library catalogue under the reference SA/MED.
The Medact archive was launched with an international symposium, Beds not Bombs: Exploring the archives of anti-nuclear medical campaigning and protest in June 2014. As part of the event, a short video was produced to showcase highlights from the archive. A number of campaigning images from the archive have also been digitised and are freely available by searching ‘Medact’ on Wellcome Images. More information about the archive can be found on the Library’s blog.
Elena Carter is a project archivist at the Wellcome Library who has recently catalogued the Medact archive, a collection which tells the story of anti-nuclear campaigning from the perspective of activist doctors and nurses.