Hiroshima at 70: hidden documents reveal UoR first to support Peace Library

Secret generosity of Mary Kirkus, librarian who was first to respond to an appeal from Hiroshima, leads to deeply poignant gift for UoR 60 years later.

New research has found the University of Reading was the first institution to respond to Hiroshima University’s (HU) global call for support after it was destroyed by the atomic bomb in 1945. Astonishingly, this remained secret until 2011, when a thank you letter arrived from HU – along with a deeply moving memento; a collection of roof tiles, complete with safety certificate, collected from the riverbed. These came from the globally iconic Atomic Bomb Dome, the only surviving structure near the hypocentre of the blast and now part of the famous Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park. The gift is hugely poignant as portions like this are believed locally to be infused with the soul of the victims.Mary Kirkus 1951-letter

In 1951 HU President Tatsuo Morito sent letters to universities world-wide, asking for support to re-establish the university by donating books for a peace library, as well as seeds to bring the charred grounds back to life. Previously unseen documents from both universities’ archives reveal Reading was the first to respond, a decision that remained a secret for 60 years.

Intriguingly, in the post war environment of economic gloom and emergent details of the war in the Far East, the research suggests that the decision may not have been sanctioned by senior management.

Records show that is was not discussed, or at least minuted in any formal meeting, by senior figures at the University. A letter from Mary Kirkus, University Librarian from 1941 to 1959, to President Morito suggests she may have made the decision alone. The University of Reading was inscribed on the donations in acknowledgment of ‘the contribution’ and ‘good will’, and remain in the Peace Library today.

Dr Jacqui Turner, from the University of Reading’s Department of History, has led the research. She said: “6 August 1945 is a date that changed the world. The atomic bomb decimated Hiroshima and completely destroyed its university, killing all students and staff. With post-war tensions still running high the world was slow to respond to President Morito’s request. However five UK institutions did send donations in 1951 – and the University of Reading led the way. Momentum for the peace library steadily grew and it now forms part of the main library at Hiroshima University.

Morito’s request was for books or pamphlets that reflected what was ‘considered valuable by your university or of note in your country’ or books concerning ‘peace problems’. Mary Kirkus of the University of Reading sent:

  • John W. Wheeler-Bennett, Disarmament and Security since Locarno 1925- 1931 (1932)
  • Aristophanes, The birds and the frogs – a translation into English of Aristophanes comedies
  • Handbrucher der praktischen Vogeschictsforschung  (A full set of Journals of Pre-Historical Research)

Dr Turner continued: “Why did Reading respond? It’s likely this was a personal decision by Mary Kirkus, although we may never know for sure. Amazingly this decision remained secret until 2011 when our previous Vice-Chancellor received a thank you letter from his counterpart at Hiroshima – along with the surprising and remarkable gift of the collection of roof tiles. This was a hugely emotive gesture: letters highlight how the Japanese believe that each tile ‘contains the souls of the people whose lives were regretfully taken away by this tragedy’. In the immediate aftermath of the bomb many rushed into the rivers of Hiroshima and died in the water before being washed away – ‘the roof tiles have absorbed the blood and body fluids’ of those who died that day.”

Reading and Hiroshima’s unique bond is growing stronger and stronger. Earlier this year the University held a symposium to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing.  During the event Vice-Chancellor of the University, Sir David Bell, read a letter sent by the Mayor of Hiroshima who asked attendees ‘in response to the desire of all hibakusha (survivors of the bomb) to continue to strive with us to eliminate the absolute evil of nuclear weapons and achieve a peaceful world. He also received thanks from President Ashara, current President of HU with thanks for an “outstanding example of peace.”

Dr Turner said: “The legacy of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs reverberates around the world, not more so than in the cities themselves. It has been an emotional and fascinating journey to uncover this story – Reading is very proud to be a friend of Hiroshima University.”

The tiles are an integral part of the Department of History’s innovative teaching programmes and are used actively in its leading research projects.


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