Paul Sims on Beds not Bombs: histories of the medical anti-war movement


To launch the Medact archive on 27 June 2014, Wellcome Library played host to a conference on the history of medical activism: ‘Beds not Bombs: Exploring the archives of anti-nuclear medical campaigning and protest’. Delegate Paul Sims reports back on an event that managed to capture some of the spirit of the anti-nuclear movement.For historians of peace movements, the role of British activists in the global campaign against nuclear weapons is well known, and the marches and iconic symbols of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) are integral to narratives of twentieth-century pacifism.Caption: Dr Christoph Laucht at Beds not Bombs, 27 June 2014 with banner designed by Thalia Campbell, a member of the march to Greenham Common in 1981. Made in August 1983 with help from Lesley Owen and Jan Higgs. Image credit: Thomas Farnetti.What is perhaps less familiar is the fact that the CND was merely the largest and most famous of a number of organisations fighting for the abolition of atomic weapons. It was in celebration of a lesser-known strand of anti-nuclear activism – the campaign of doctors and medical workers against nuclear weapons – that a group of academics and activists gathered at the Wellcome Trust’s headquarters in London for a day conference at the end of June.

Today the medical campaign comes under the umbrella of Medact, an organisation founded in 1992 from the merger of two organisations, the Medical Association for the Prevention of War (founded in 1951) and the Medical Campaign Against Nuclear Weapons (founded in 1980). The archives of Medact and its predecessor, the Medical Campaign Against Nuclear Weapons, have just been catalogued and are available at the Wellcome Library. As those of us in attendance at the Beds not Bombs event learned, they represent a vast and rich new resource for historians with interests in pacifism, social movements, medical history, and much more.Left to right: Dr Christoph Laucht, Emily Gustainis, Elena Carter at Beds not Bombs, 27 June 2014. Image credit: Thomas Farnetti.Having carried out some work on the CND as part of my PhD research, it became clear to me during the numerous fascinating papers presented at the conference that the archive of the medical campaign has the potential to throw some new light on the history of anti-nuclear activism, highlighting the role played by medical professionals alongside the more familiar grassroots activists in the disarmament campaign.

As Professor Peter Van Den Dungen of the University of Bradford’s Department of Peace Studies demonstrated in the conference’s opening session, there is a long and proud history of medical professionals speaking out against conflict. Prof Van Den Dungen introduced us to a whole host of doctors who have opposed war, but in the centenary year of the outbreak of the First World War it seems appropriate to highlight Georg Friedrich Nicolai (1874 – 1964), the German pioneer of electrocardiography who composed a Manifesto to the Europeans appealing for sanity amid the outbreak of war in 1914.Caption: Georg Friedrich Nicolai. Image credit: Wikipedia.orgAllison Cullingford, Special Collections Librarian at the University of Bradford (which holds the archive of the Medical Association for the Prevention of War), noted in her talk that medical opposition to war has its roots in the Hippocratic Oath, and the responsibility of doctors to protect human life. While not all doctors agreed, there developed within the 20th-century medical peace movement a view that physicians had a duty to treat not only individuals and their medical problems, but also the social problems that lead to death, injury and illness (both physical and psychological). With the arrival of the nuclear age in 1945, the imperative to cure the ‘sickness’ of war became all the more urgent, and doctors rallied to the cause of nuclear disarmament.

It would be misleading to suggest that the involvement of medical professionals is an untold part of the anti-nuclear story, but it is certainly less well known than the marches and colourful activism of the CND, and it is possible that the opening of the Medact archive will contribute to it gaining a more prominent role in the historical literature.

While some have chosen to emphasize the romantic nature of anti-nuclear activism (see for example Meredith Veldman’s fascinating 1994 book Fantasy, the Bomb and the Greening of Britain), it became apparent to me in my own research on nuclear disarmament that there was always a strong rational, scientific strand to the movement, with a great reliance on empirical evidence and the authority of scientists in driving home the message concerning the dangers of nuclear testing and warfare.

At the conference, we were given a wonderful illustration of the multi-faceted character of the nuclear disarmament campaign, as a morning spent focusing on medical activism ended with a performance of peace songs by Bob Wakeling, a folk singer and CND veteran who had provided musical inspiration at the legendaryAldermaston marches of the late 1950s and early 1960s.Bob Wakeling sings anti-war songs at Beds not Bombs, 27 June 2014. Image credit: Thomas Farnetti.The songs of Bob Wakeling and the activism of medical professionals are two strands of a diverse and interweaving story of anti-nuclear campaigning, and while the iconic marches of CND will likely remain best known, the significance of less familiar forms of protest, such as the medical campaign, should not be overlooked.

An important contribution to research on this strand of activism is being made by Dr Christoph Laucht of Swansea University, who in the afternoon session of the conference provided an overview of his current work on the medical campaign of the 1980s. Laucht is conceptualising the medical campaign as a form of “professional activism”, whereby medics, driven by the ethos of their profession, used their expert authority as a platform from which to speak out against the threat of nuclear arms.

Laucht’s work is an excellent example of how the Medact archives could shed new light on the wider subject of anti-nuclear campaigning. Much of the literature to date has focused on nuclear disarmament as an example of a mass, grassroots social movement, but as Laucht’s work demonstrates, there were also significant contributions made by smaller campaigns based on technical knowledge and expert authority. Such research has the potential to speak to wider questions concerning the uses of expert forms of knowledge and the rise of the expert in the twentieth century, and provide a necessary counterweight to research that emphasizes the significance of grassroots activism in the history of single-issue politics.Caption: Photograph from the IPPNW Fourth European Symposium, 1988 (source: Medact archive: SA/MED).  WI no. L0075354.It is worth noting that the Medact archive is just one of many collections that cover anti-nuclear campaigning. As we heard from Emily Gustainis of the Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine at Harvard Medical School, the British medical campaign formed part of a larger international network of clinicians (the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War) dedicated to fighting for the abolition of nuclear weapons.

Historians have only begun to scratch the surface, and anyone with an interest in nuclear disarmament would be well advised to take a look at the Medact archive, and consider the ways in which this newly catalogued material could help to advance our understanding of the subject.

Other speakers at the ‘Beds not Bombs’ conference included:

More perspectives on the event at twitter: #bedsnotbombs

Author: Paul Sims is a PhD candidate at Queen Mary, University of London researching the development of environmental politics in post-war Britain. He has also worked as assistant editor of New Humanist magazine. Twitter: @pauldsimsThis blog was first published on the Wellcome Library website here. Reproduced with kind permission