Rosalie Bertell has been a hero of mine for many years so I was pleased to learn that a much needed biography of her was in the making. I was even more pleased to be asked to contribute some thoughts and a photo of Rosalie to Engels’ work.
The scholarship, courage, determination and foresight of this remarkable woman deserve to be known to all activists seeking sources of inspiration and wisdom.
Frail from birth, Rosalie was a serious student encouraged in her talent for mathematics and music by caring parents. Her Canadian mother was her inspiration and active supporter in social action. From her American father – the inventor of the car night mirror – she developed her scientific and practical abilities.
Rosalie knew from a young age that she would enter a convent and take the religious life, much as she enjoyed her home, school and social life. She was in her teens at the end of WW2 and the war “challenged her beliefs about the goodness of the universe…the victory achieved through atomic fire in Japan raised questions that would preoccupy her throughout her life.”
Rosalie believes that the war never ended – that post-WW2, the USA and most of the world continue to arm and create a permanent war economy and mentality.
After a period in a Carmelite convent where she learned that women can develop all the practical skills for existence, Rosalie’s health failed again and she returned to secular life. Her studies continued and she gained a PhD (critics love to call her Sister Bertell, just a woman and a nun, not a real scientist.) Her concerns about the unleashing of atomic energy and weaponry on the world continued in her research and teaching career, she did original and ground breaking work connecting cancer to nuclear installations and low level radiation. She joined the Grey Nuns, an order with a historic tradition of social service.
Everything Rosalie has done in her career as a scientist and an activist has been illuminated by her concern for the health of humanity and all life forms and the destructive effects of radioactivity. She became an advocate for community groups opposing nuclear development in USA and Canada . She travelled the world to see, study and inform the public about the effects of the nuclear industry and bomb testing. Her work has always showed her support for groups that were more vulnerable and threatened by radiation than others: women and children; aboriginal and majority world peoples; workers in uranium mines and nuclear facilities.
Eventually she became too successful; her willingness to oppose the white male nuclear establishment brought on pressure at her workplaces and many public attacks; she chose to become an independent consultant. When her life was threatened in a highway “accident”, she moved to Canada , where she still maintains citizenship. In 2004 she was anxious to cast her vote in the Canadian federal election, even though by then she had returned to the USA and was recovering from surgery.
During her twenty years in Canada her work became more accepted – unfortunately many of her predictions came true. She set up an Institute for international health to support her work and continued her extensive, often gruelling, travels. She received many awards, including the Right Livelihood Award from Sweden with her co-researcher Alice Stuart of the UK . She has written several books and her last; Planet Earth: The latest weapon of war is the culmination of her experience as a researcher and activist. She sees that our relentless blind militarization is the greatest threat to the earth’s environment and life. Rosalie is still working, accepting of and coping with her physical frailty, gaining strength from her religious life and a world of supporters. Much of her present work deals with the use and effects of “depleted uranium”, another hideous weapon of war.
In Planet Earth Rosalie is optimistic about the possibility for change. She points out that our society has changed its core values – also attitudes and legislation- on many issues from women’s rights, children’s rights, animal welfare and homosexual rights. She believes we can and will change our values about militarization. She works with many people and groups, always generous with her time and wisdom. In Beijing at the UN Women’s Forum she called on us to be responsible gatherers and transmitters of information and knowledge. “We Can Be Our Own Media”.
I have been honoured to have Rosalie’s friendship for many years and I often quote her in my writing and speeches, referring to her science and her faith in human betterment. I gain courage from her passion to be “fruitful”, and her encouragement to others to stand up for life.
Engel’s biography gives a comprehensive and easily understood chronology of the basis of Rosalie’s scientific research and Engels shows how Rosalie illustrates the possibility of a fulfilled life as a scientist and an activist outside the mainstream establishment – something many of us hope to achieve. If I ever do, it will be with the guidance of Rosalie.
The last words in this book and this review are by Rosalie Bertell herself.
“The continuity of life, the call for making things better for the next and the next generations blots out all hesitation…We have to be part of something larger than ourselves, because our dreams are often bigger than our lifetimes.”