Approx Reading Time-14The 1950’s was a great period of renewal in Australia, but with that progress came the nuclear bomb. The British said yes, Hedley Marston said no.




Although we usually see the 1950s as an era where nothing much happened in Australia, I think we are wrong. After Robert Menzies and the newly established Liberal Party came to power in 1949, the re-making of Australia began. This was the age of mechanisation and the emergence of the consumer. We experienced a baby boom and an extensive program of migration. Inner city suburbs were demolished and rebuilt (further away) on a massive scale, more women went to work and the amount of people in tertiary education doubled.

It was also the time of the Cold War and Reds under the Beds, and far-reaching experiments with the device that was hoped to keep the Commies at bay: the nuclear bomb. Atmospheric tests were going on everywhere in the world and were becoming the measuring stick of the status of a nation. Like Sir William Penney, the chief scientist of the British Atomic Weapons Research Establishment said in 1951: “The discriminative test for a first-class power is whether it has made an atomic bomb and we have either got to pass the test or suffer a serious loss in prestige both inside this country and internationally.” Menzies, of course, wanted to be part of the big boys club too, so in the early 1950s, he gave the British permission to test on Australian soil, with fatal consequences. One of the unlikely whistle-blowers against his program was biochemist Hedley Marston, and this makes him my last Aussie Maverick. “Apparently the people of Whitehall and Canberra think the people of northern Australia to be expendable.”

From most reports, Hedley Marston (1900-1965) was not a nice man. Born in South Australia’s Bordertown, he did a degree in biochemistry at the University of Adelaide. He didn’t get the piece of paper, because he failed mathematics, but managed to get himself a job at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (the future CSIRO) regardless. It was the 1930s, and Marston, who was a great self-promoter, soon became the boss of the division of animal nutrition. After a few years, he claimed to have discovered that “coast disease”, a sickness in sheep, was caused by a lack of cobalt in their diet. In reality, it was two of his employees who had, but Marston appropriated their work and they never got the credits. The second time Marston claimed recognition and praise for discoveries that weren’t his, was in the 1940s, when his division found out that the soil at South Australia’s Ninety Mile Desert was lacking in copper and zinc. By simply adding those two components, the two million acres of land were brought into productive farming. Marston boasted that he had made the desert bloom, but again this was more a grand announcement than the honest truth.

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But there is an argument to be made that mavericks need a bit of arrogance, and even a touch of self-righteous, self-importance to do what they do, and Marston would be up against serious powers. Just after WWII, the Americans were becoming more and more influential in Australia, but Robert Menzies, “British to his bootlaces”, still wanted his nation to stay close to the Mother Country. So when Churchill asked him in 1951 if they could do atmospheric bomb testing on Australian soil, he “was flattered to be needed” and “immediately agreed to the proposal, without even consulting his cabinet colleagues”, let alone Parliament. Menzies also hoped that the British would share the atomic secrets with him if he allowed them to do this, something that never eventuated. But in 1952, the first bomb was exploded at the Monto Bello Islands, 130 kilometres off the Pilbara Coast in Western Australia. In 1953, two more followed at Emu Field in the South Australian desert. The tests were monitored by the Atomic Weapons Tests Safety Committee, under the supervision of Leslie Martin and Ernest Titterton. They had to determine whether conditions were safe for the population and they were ideal picks by the government, because both were convinced that whatever Whitehall and Canberra did was well done and not to be doubted.

In 1955, though, Marston was asked to help the British in their research into the biological effects of radiation caused by the tests. Marston, convinced that the experiments of the AWTSC were flawed, devised his own. So in 1956, he monitored the fallout due to more tests on the Monto Bello Islands and at Maralinga, 1,000 kilometres northwest of Adelaide. What he found appalled him. During the first test, iodine levels in the thyroids of Marston’s test sheep were 4,000 times higher that expected and geigertellers measuring Adelaide’s atmosphere found radioactive rain. The second test was even worse, with a radioactive cloud covering large parts of Australia and people and animals in the desert dying left, right and centre. Also, radiation levels read 96,000 where 20 was normal. Marston, alarmed, sent his data to London, but the British fudged the results and the Australian government decided not to tell the population. Marston tried to convince his colleagues at the AWTSC to come clean, predicting that the fact that radioactive iodine was now present in animals, meant that it had, or soon would, become part of the food chain. He was especially worried about cow’s milk that was given to children through the school milk program. Thousands could die from bone cancer, Marston said, through a contaminated milk supply.

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The British and the AWTSC were having none of it and when Marston tried to publish his findings in a scientific journal, they used the Official Secrets Act to stop him. Marston came under surveillance of ASIO and for the next couple of years he fought running battles with the scientific community and the government. He called the tests a “quasi-scientific pantomime under the cloak of secrecy” and accused his colleagues and the government of lying to the Australian people. “It is the most disgusting thing I have ever seen”, he said in a phone conversation with Leslie Martin, but none of that rage reached the general public. In the mean time, the AWTSC, while pretending not to worry, started a top-secret testing program of its own. Between 1957 and 1978, the bones of 21,000 dead Australians, mostly children, were used to look for evidence of Strontium-90, proof of radioactive contamination. The bones were “acquired” from pathologists and funeral directors, without the knowledge of next of kin. They demonstrated what Marston had been saying all along: by 1959, the radiation found in the bones of children had increased by 50%. Not long after, Nobel Prize winner Linus Pauling gained international headlines with his warning that for every nuclear bomb exploded in the atmosphere, 15,000 children were being sacrificed. More and more scientist came out of their labs, saying that the words “safe” and “radioactive fallout” could simply not be used in the same sentence.

At the beginning of the 1960s, the international citizenry got seriously worried, and governments were concerned that it would cost them votes and trust if they weren’t seen to act. So in 1963, the atomic powers agreed to only test underground, and at the start of the 1990s, after the Cold War was over, they stopped altogether. Marston did not get to see that day, though. He eventually got to publish his findings, but only after they had been heavily edited by the AWTSC. Strangely enough, none of the big newspapers picked up the story, warned off by the government. Hedley Marston died, still furious, in 1965. He would be vindicated posthumously, by the McClelland Royal Commission, which looked into the tests and their aftermath in 1984-1985. It concluded that Marston had been right, both in his test results and the anger against the scientific and governmental powers-that-be. Marston, the superego who believed he was the best biochemist in the world, would not have been surprised. Which shows us that mavericks are not necessarily pleasant people. But without them, we would be much, much worse of. So for the last time: hail to the naysayers, the non-conformers, the outsiders. They’ve got our gratitude, and, whether they are nice or not, our admiration.


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