How the tiny fishing village of Pugwash tried to stop a nuclear war

In a world reeling from the horrific mass killings of the Second World War, Albert Einstein and British philosopher Bertrand Russell issued a manifesto calling for leading scientists to gather to "appraise the perils" produced by new atomic weapons.

New play looks at legendary scientific conference 60 years after it took over a Nova Scotia community

Cyrus Eaton made his fortunes in the U.S., but always came home to Pugwash. He died in 1979. (

In a world reeling from the horrific mass killings of the Second World War, Albert Einstein and British philosopher Bertrand Russell issued a manifesto calling for leading scientists to gather to "appraise the perils" produced by new atomic weapons.

"We are speaking on this occasion, not as members of this or that nation, continent, or creed, but as human beings, members of the species Man, whose continued existence is in doubt," their 1955 manifesto said.

So where do you meet to thwart the end of the world?

The answer turned out to be a little Nova Scotia fishing village called Pugwash. The story of how the world's leading scientists descended on Cumberland County in 1957 forms the backdrop to Pugwash, a play making its world premiere at Parrsboro's Ship's Company Theatre this month.

The play starts this July. (

Playwright Vern Thiessen describes a world less than a decade removed from the U.S. dropping nuclear weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and where the U.S.S.R. and U.S. rattled nuclear sabres at each other in the dawning Cold War.

Multiple locations considered

"There really wasn't a lot of understanding about what actually the science of radiation was and what it was doing to people," he said. "There was a lot going on science-wise that led to the Pugwash Conferences."

Scientists had created nuclear weapons and the Einsten-Russell Manifesto called for them to put the genie back in the bottle.

"There were a lot of attempts to find a location for this. In fact, India had been chosen, but something happened and they couldn't do it there," he said.

For some, 'Pugwash' became a synonym for subversive thinking, as this period cartoon shows. (

Enter Cyrus Eaton. Born in Pugwash in 1883, he started life with a religious perspective, but a summer job under John D. Rockefeller converted him to capitalism. By 1910, he was a millionaire and soon American citizen — and one of the richest tycoons in the world. He lost it all in the Great Depression, but rebuilt a greater fortune.

By 1955, he had returned to his holier roots and become a philanthropist. He summered in Pugwash, where he owned Pineo Lodge, later renamed Thinker's Lodge.

When he heard Einstein and Russell's call, he offered to pay for the conference at the lodge as a somewhat neutral site for scientists from all sides to gather, and a rustic location filled with natural beauty and devoid of international media.

"He believed that thinking was equally as important as making money," said Thiessen.

2 kids, 2 scientists

Twenty-two scientists from the U.S., U.S.S.R., Japan, U.K., Canada and Australia attended the first Pugwash Conference, along with many others. When Thiessen decided to capture the global movement on a small stage, he focused on the human side.

"I'm really fascinated by how Pugwash, that little fishing village, changed the world. And they changed the world in a way that is unique, because they housed the scientists in the homes of people," said Thiessen.

The play tells of the bond developed between two local kids and two prominent scientists living with them for the conference. Thiessen interviewed dozens of Pugwash people with connections to the conference on two research trips and created the two children as composites. The scientists are based on real people from Japan and the Soviet Union.

"We actually don't know very much about them. That's a gift for a playwright, because then you can make stuff up," the playwright said with a laugh.

Vern Thiessen visited Pugwash and interviewed dozens of people with connections to the original conference. (Submitted by Vern Thiessen)

Pugwash Conferences continue to be held, although only occasionally in Pugwash, and the organization won a Nobel Peace Prize in 1995. That prize is on display in the Thinker's Lodge in Pugwash, along with Eaton's 1960 International Lenin Peace Prize.

The conferences remain an important way for scientists and thinkers to gather and talk, regardless of political tensions.

Thiessen attended the 2012 Pugwash Conference — meaning he can call himself a Pugwashite. It was held that year in Pugwash and he was able to speak to scientists and locals to get a tone for his play.

Enter Donald Trump

Thiessen said in the years he spent working on the play, people couldn't understand his interest in the distant, dusty past. But with U.S. President Donald Trump declaring the end of the era of "strategic patience" with North Korea, nuclear fears are back.

"Before the election in the United States, when I told people I was writing a play about nuclear war and the Cold War, they were like, 'Why are you writing a play about that? Who cares about that?' Well, it's amazing what six months can change."

Pugwash runs July 5 to 30 at Ship's Company Theatre in Parrsboro, N.S.

About the Author

Jon Tattrie


Jon Tattrie is a journalist and the author of two novels and five non-fiction books. He won the RTDNA's 2015 Adrienne Clarkson Award. Find him