Mad on Radium by Rebecca Priestley – review

by Bob Rigg / 24 November, 2012
A critical reassessment of New Zealand in the nuclear age.
Mad on Radium by Rebecca Priestley


Rebecca Priestley’s magnificent Mad on Radium: New Zealand in the Atomic Age deserves to be read by every thinking Kiwi. Its title is attributable to Fritz Wohlmann, an expert in the therapeutic use of mineral waters at government-owned spas in the early 20th century. Everyone wanted to wallow in the spas, to relieve pain and suffering in joints and skin, and to flush out vaginal and rectal cavities.

Public enthusiasm far exceeded the availability of radium – a prohibitively expensive substance. Its potential for cancer treatment was identified at an early stage, although widespread ignorance of the element, including among scientists and medical specialists, limited its usefulness. As Priestley emphasises, little or no attention was devoted to the hazards for patients and medical staff. According to the Department of Health, antenatal x-rays of pregnant women were “no danger to either mother or child”.

Priestley’s prodigious research into contemporary publications has yielded a treasure trove of fascinating and sometimes hilarious examples of public attitudes to radium and other things. Housewives could bake bread using Radium brand flour. Ignorant or unscrupulous health professionals prescribed radium treatment almost willy-nilly, thanks to the lack of regulation and oversight in such matters. But it was slowly dawning on some that although radium can treat cancer, it can also cause it.

In a chapter on the atom bomb and the atomic age, the book delves into the role of Ernest Rutherford in splitting the atom and laying the foundation for nuclear physics. Unlike HG Wells, Rutherford was convinced the “energy produced by the breaking down of the atom is a very poor kind of thing”. Mad on Radium provides a useful overview of international attempts, during and after World War II, to develop nuclear weapons.

It will surprise some that a few brilliant New Zealand scientists were secretly involved, less in the Manhattan Project than in advanced Canadian and British research into nuclear weapons. One of these, Maurice Wilkins, was so shocked by the outcome of the Manhattan Project that he abandoned nuclear physics and went on to win a Nobel Prize in another field.

Contemporary opinion is more or less slavishly locked into associating New Zealand with eternal opposition to nuclear weapons. The book gently tears this apart by showing how the country’s political leaders have frequently embraced nuclear energy, even to the extent of actively supporting British nuclear tests in Australia and the Pacific in the 1950s. New Zealand also tolerated a wave of hundreds of massive US nuclear and hydrogen bomb tests in the Pacific, in the face of available scientific information about dramatically increased risk to human health.

The New Zealand scientific establishment was frequently divided, and kept coming out with contradictory statements on the desirability of nuclear energy for New Zealand. As the Cold War unfolded, political leaders also kept on changing their minds or contradicting themselves as the heat came on from the US, and as their assessment of the cost and desirability of nuclear energy changed in the light of newly discovered resources. Labour’s post-war leadership initially supported nuclear weapons, praising the bombing of Hiroshima and supporting the nuclearisation of the Pacific. Peter Fraser denounced a major international peace initiative as “just another Soviet weapon”.

Years before Norman Kirk and David Lange took a stand, National’s Keith Holyoake firmly told the US that New Zealand “would acquire neither atomic nor nuclear weapons and would not become a base for their storage”. In 1956, the National Government rejected secret British requests to conduct nuclear tests on Penrhyn in the Cook Islands. This important book assembles, with quiet detachment, a plethora of factual information enabling a critical reassessment of key dimensions of New Zealand security policy since World War II. Where Priestley has gone, others must now follow.

MAD ON RADIUM: NEW ZEALAND IN THE ATOMIC AGE, by Rebecca Priestley (AUP, $45).

Bob Rigg is an independent researcher specialising in disarmament, weapons of mass destruction and US foreign policy.

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