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environmentalist Dr. Rosalie Bertell

by Beth Atcheson | June 3, 2003

... nothing else is going to matter if we kill the earth and we kill the food and we destroy the gene pool and there aren’t any people around to enjoy the earth.1

Dr. Rosalie Bertell is an advocate for health, for the earth and those who live on it. She would argue that they are indivisible, that you can’t have one without the other. She is many other things too – nun, scientist, teacher, educator, writer, feminist, peace activist, political activist. She would probably say that these are also indivisible, that they have combined to give her a perspective and a passion. From these threads come a life that is a whole cloth, a mantle we can wear too. Bertell is crystal clear about what is wrong:

... there’s no social justice issue which does not result in a violation of human health ... Right through our society, whether you talk about rape, you talk about abuse, you talk about despotic rulers, or you talk about the nuclear club, its the same thing: if I’m bigger or I’ve got more power, therefore I am in charge, and it just destroys everybody else.2

Dr. Bertell was born in Buffalo, New York, in 1929. She says that she is a fourth generation Canadian-American – her mother was Canadian, her father American. She earned her first degree, a bachelor of arts, in 1951 at Buffalo’s Marguerite d’Youville College. Marguerite d’Youville was the first Canadian-born foundress of a religious community (1738) to be declared a saint. There was one other Canadian (pre-Canadian) saint, Keteri Tekawika, the Mohawk girl. Bertell first joined a Carmelite monastery. She undertook hard physical work there, suffering a heart attack. During her recovery, she discovered that she enjoyed teaching mathematics. So she made some changes.

She spent from 1951–1956 in Carmel; 1956–1957 teaching high school, and from 1957–1958 getting an M.A. degree at Catholic University in mathematics. In the fall of 1958, at the age of 29, she joined the order d’Youville founded, the Sisters of Charity (known as the Grey Nuns of the Sacred Heart). Says Bertell of d’Youville, “... [She] always did what needed to be done in a pioneer village. She used common sense. So I’ve got a good history in my congregation for this kind of thing.”3

Bertell pursued a PhD degree in biometrics (the science of biological measurement) at the Catholic University of America in Washington, DC, graduating in 1966 at the age of 37. She started work as an environmental epidemiologist, studying the relationship between diseases and communities. She joined the world’s first cancer research facility, Roswell Park Cancer Institute. Bertell also taught mathematics at her old college. She suffered a second heart attack in 1972 and, in what would become a pattern for her, started to create the next chapter of her life work. She studied data on medical diagnostic x-ray and the radiation legacy of the bombs dropped by the United States on Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War Two. She soon became an expert on radiation, particularly the effect of low level radiation on earth’s biological systems and our biological systems.

Dr. Bertell tells what is happening in flesh-and-blood terms. She can speak the scientific language of the weapons, nuclear and chemical industries, but she chooses to talk instead about life and health, about who is hurt and why.

... since 1945 – not counting Hiroshima and Nagasaki – there are somewhere between 10 million and 20 million radiation cancer victims in the world. I’m talking about uranium miners and millers, transportation people, the ones who run the power plants, the ones who separate out weapons materials, fabricate the weapons, test the weapons and live downwind of the tests, and handle the waste.4

She makes clear that nature is not at fault; humans have created the problems we must now solve. Many of the substances threatening the earth and its inhabitants are human creations, often created in or for conflict situations by the military, then applied to other uses. One of the starkest examples is chlorine. Chlorine does not exist as a gas in nature. It was separated out and used to horrible effect as a weapon in World War One. Then came chloroform, carbon tetrachloride, pesticides, herbicides, defoliants, PCBs, DDT, dioxin – all contributors to the destruction of nature.

Dr. Bertell has made it part of her life work to teach us to be smart consumers of what we read, hear and see in the media about the environment and health. Here is one illustration:

... [another] tactic is to give everything in per cent so that you’re told “well, there’s a little bit of radioactive iodine [a chemical created by a nuclear reaction] in your milk, but it’s O.K., it’s only a small percentage of the permissible level.” Now you’re not really told where that permissible level came from, or who said you could have radioactive material in your milk and it was O.K., but to even express it as a small percentage of a permissible level is very deceptive because those permissible levels are extraordinarily high.5

Dr. Bertell went back to Carmel in 1975, reducing her work at Roswell but continuing to work at a distance in Vermont. She spent a year in contemplative prayer at a Carmelite monastery in Vermont, and came back to the public fray confident that activism was her calling. In 1978, she left Roswell because her department head tried to limit her testimony on medical X-ray exposure at a US congressional hearing. She moved to Toronto, ON, in 1980 and worked from 1980-1984 at the Jesuit Centre for Peace and Social Justice, later co-founding the International Institute of Concern for Public Health (IICPH) (another co-founder was Ursula Franklin). She travelled widely, taking part in studies and activities in the United States, Canada, Japan, the Marshall Islands, Malaysia, the Philippines, India, Germany and Ukraine. Dr. Bertell directed the research for the International Medical Commission, Bhopal, which investigated the aftermath of the Union Carbide disaster in Bhopal, and the International Medical Commission, Chernobyl.

Dr. Bertell aims to move our health and the health of our planet from last to first place in our public priorities. She believes we can do it, but only if we do things together, without violence, on a large scale.

... you can’t violently choose life, you kill it ... And it’s going to have to be basically people-to-people networks built on trust because you’re trusting the future and you’re trusting your life.6

more to consider

Dr. Rosalie Bertell sees justice, or the lack of it, running through how we treat the environment, which is an aspect of how we treat each other. What is happening in the environment is a reflection of who has power and who does not. Power is not only taken, it is also given. Many of us have to stop giving our power to others – that is one of the few ways we can stop being victims. Giving away power is often the easier road in the short run, but it is devastating in the long run. Dr. Bertell’s point is that we should take our own power and combine with others to create a community that can join with other communities to make change.

footnotes

1 2 4 5 6 Quietly Eating Radioactivity, a speech by ROSALIE BERTELL, given to AMARC, an international community radio group in Vancouver, British Columbia | August 1986

3 Option for Health and Life, by ROSEMARY DONELLY and LOUISA BLAIR, interview with Dr. Bertell, Compass magazine, volume 13, number 4

additional resources
  • Planet Earth: The Latest Weapon of War, by ROSALIE BERTELL, Black Rose Books, hardcover ISBN: 15551641836, paperback ISBN: 1551641828 | 2001
  • No Immediate Danger: Prognosis for a Radioactive Earth, by ROSALIE BERTELL, Women’s Press, ISBN: 0889610924 | 1985
  • Permanent People’s Tribunal Session, Chernobyl: Environmental, Health and Human Rights Implications, by ROSALIE BERTELL, Vienna, ISBN: 3000015345 | 1996

This feature was first published on section15.ca’s predecessor site CoolWomen.

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