Illustrations of heads showing surprise and aversion. Holograph manuscript by Louis Charles d'Ourches Bigarures. Credit: Wellcome Library, London
As East and West squared off at the height of the Cold War, the threat of a nuclear attack was all too real. Armed with stark facts about the potential impact of the bomb, a group of doctors and nurses launched a campaign for nuclear disarmament.
MCANW challenged the government line that nuclear war could be survivable, pointing to the catastrophic consequences of a nuclear attack. They argued that there could be no adequate medical response in the face of an atomic attack 15000 times the strength of the bomb that devastated Hiroshima.
For the medical campaigners, then, prevention was the only cure, nuclear disarmament the only way to prevent nuclear disaster.
The group did not work in isolation: MCANW also worked closely with the Medical Association for the Prevention of War (MAPW). Both MCANW and MAPW were UK affiliates of the Nobel Prize-winning International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW), an organisation founded in 1980 to coordinate the efforts of doctors campaigning against nuclear weapons in over 50 groups around the world.
This international body was born out of an unlikely alliance between East and West, led by the American Dr. Bernard Lown and Dr. Evgueni Chazov of the USSR. The partnership showed that doctors were prepared to overcome ideological barriers in the fight against nuclear weapons.
Back in the UK, MCANW campaigns also drew attention to the plight of the NHS, pointing out the discrepancy between defence and health spending at a time of severe pressure on front line healthcare.
Campaigns like ‘Beds not Bombs’ (1987) and ‘Treatment not Trident’ (1985) argued that “for the cost of one Trident we could have a decent National Health Service”.
As tensions between East and West began to ease in the 1990s, the Medical Campaign broadened its focus, undertaking education, research and advocacy on the health implications of conflict, development and environmental change.
This led to the formation of Medact in 1992 following a merger with the Medical Association for the Prevention of War (MAPW). Medact continues to campaign along these lines today.
The archive collection at the Wellcome Library includes records from MCANW and Medact. Papers of the pre-1992 MAPW are held at the University of Bradford Special Collections.
Medact’s members were driven by a sense of duty and conscience. This archive offers the chance to explore what drove medical professionals to swap stethoscopes for placards in protest at what they saw as the greatest threat to human health.
Watch a video of highlights from the Medact archive:
Author: Elena Carter is a project archivist at the Wellcome Library.
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