While accepting the Nobel Peace Prize, Setsuko Thurlow — a 1955 graduate and 2018 Commencement speaker of University of Lynchburg — focused on her personal experience surviving nuclear warfare.
Thurlow was 13 years old when the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, where she lived. She recalled a “bluish-white” flash outside the window of her school, she explained in her portion of the Nobel lecture. Most of the other children in her classroom were burned alive by the blast. The building crumbled, pinning her beneath. Eventually she was freed after hearing a rescuer shouting instructions to move toward the light she could see through the rubble.
Seventy years later, Thurlow is one of the chief campaigners for the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons. This summer, that group succeeded in convincing the United Nations to adopt a treaty that would ban nuclear weapons, but many obstacles remain; 50 countries must ratify the treaty before it is binding, and the world’s nuclear powers and their allies — including the United States, the United Kingdom, and France — have rejected the treaty.
Still, Thurlow encouraged the world to have hope. “When I was a 13-year-old girl, trapped in the smouldering rubble, I kept pushing. I kept moving toward the light. And I survived,” she said. “Our light now is the ban treaty. … No matter what obstacles we face, we will keep moving and keep pushing and keep sharing this light with others. This is our passion and commitment for our one precious world to survive.”
Thurlow is a campaigner in the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, the international collective of groups and agencies that was selected for the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize due to its work on the UN treaty. The organization chose her and executive director Beatrice Fihn to receive the award and each deliver a lecture about the importance of nuclear disarmament for world peace.
Thurlow earned her sociology degree from Lynchburg in 1955 and has agreed to serve as the Commencement speaker on May 12, 2018.
She has been featured in other news stories before and after her participation in the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony. Radio-Canada in Toronto (where Thurlow lives) aired a story (in French) about her life and her work.