Born in 1929, Michael Denborough studied medicine in Cape Town, South Africa, and as part of his training went to treat people in the black townships. Later as a Rhodes scholar at Oxford, he saw the stark contrast between the two worlds and his passion for social justice was ignited.
World War II had had a profound effect on him as people he had known at school were sacrificed in an “appalling waste of humanity”. He said: “The nuclear industry seems to embody everything that is worst about human nature. It could destroy all life on earth 50 times over simply for greed”.
In 1970, Michael came across evidence of an increase of radioactive iodine uptake in sheep’s thyroid glands every time the French conducted a nuclear test in the Pacific. When the politicians refused to act on this information, he and his medical colleague Roger Melick wrote a press release and sent it to all the national newspapers.
The Australian public was horrified and the outburst led to the matter being taken up by the newly elected Gough Whitlam. He then sent his attorney-general Lionel Murphy to the International Court in the Hague and that forced the French nuclear tests underground.
In 1983, Michael organised an International Symposium at the ANU on “The Consequences of Nuclear War for Australia and its Region” with the aim of promoting international nuclear disarmament.
Physicians and scientists from eastern and western countries including the USSR and the USA came to see what they could do to fix the greatest threat to world health — the global threat of nuclear war. It was a huge success and he edited a book of the speeches made there.
In 1984, as a response to the Labor government’s sell out on their anti-nuclear platform, he founded the Nuclear Disarmament Party. It was a single-issue party with three planks — no uranium mining, no nuclear weapons and no US bases. The then Socialist Workers Party played an important and constructive role in those early days. Two senators got elected, one in 1984 and one in 1987 and the NDP continued to highlight nuclear issues in elections until 2009.
Michael’s activism continued throughout the years. He was arrested for protesting at AIDEX (an arms bazaar) in 1991 and then again in the mid 90s outside the French Embassy after the French government resumed their nuclear tests in the Pacific.
In 2003, when the US invaded Iraq, he set up a solo vigil outside parliament house in Canberra and stayed for 52 days. On the day John Howard committed Australian troops to Iraq he got thrown out of parliament for protesting loudly from the gallery.
Michael died on February 8. He will be remembered for his deep conviction and relentless efforts against war and the dangers of the nuclear industry. It was always heartening for him to hear about the continuing work of so many wonderful activists dedicated to the cause of nuclear disarmament and a more peaceful world.