I always had some sense of "destiny," and my course was set when reading Nevil Shute's novel On the Beach when I was seventeen years old in first-year medical school. This book described a nuclear war that occurred by accident. Everybody in the world died except the population of Melbourne, because the fallout took the longest to reach us. Eventually, though, everyone in Melbourne died as well — and hideously, of acute radiation illness, signaling the end of the human race. I was converted immediately to the cause of nuclear disarmament, and determined to commit my life as a physician to teaching people about the medical consequences of nuclear war and nuclear power.
These days, stanzas still sometimes appear in my brain from nowhere and repeat themselves, giving me comfort in a world that often makes no sense at all. Poems written years ago can be extraordinarily prescient in their intense despair, and their ability to reflect our current insane international situation. Though most people indulge in psychic numbing or manic denial, the planet is in gross jeopardy from the trilogy of unrestrained global warming, the medical consequences of nuclear power, and the ever-present threat of a full-scale nuclear war. Perhaps it is a Yeats poem written almost a century ago that best captures the state of the world in 2007:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
— From The Second Coming
I practiced medicine for years but gradually became involved in educating and recruiting doctors globally to teach about the medical effects of nuclear war. I was founder and president of a group called Physicians for Social Responsibility, a group of twenty-three thousand physicians whose educational efforts helped catalyze the end of the Cold War. My audiences these days vary — doctors, students, church people, and lay people, all of whom can be psychologically devastated by hearing the gruesome medical effects of nuclear war, with all laid waste as people expire from acute radiation sickness and burns.
In the face of such atrocity, it might seem strange to turn to poetry; as Shakespeare asked, "How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea;/Whose action is no stronger than a flower?" Yet, as such lines prove, poetry is an art form uniquely suited to encompass both the horror and the splendor of existence, and often in the same breath. Moreover, it can conjure the essence of pure love and joy that is available to us all, but which, in the light of such terrible evidence about the state of our world, can seem so difficult to believe in. And so, when my audiences become overwhelmed, it is Shakespeare's greatest love sonnet that I invoke: "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day? / Thou art more lovely and more temperate." For surely such love for each other, and for humankind, exists —even in times of the worst global crisis, even today.