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Sent: Friday, June 28, 2002 12:29 AM
Subject: Dr Alice Stewart-obituary
TIMES OBITUARIES, June 27, 2002
Dr Alice Stewart
Epidemiologist who proved links between exposure to radiation
and forced the authorities into greater openness
For more than 40 years the epidemiologist Alice Stewart challenged
estimates of the risks of radiation. Her research in 1956 and
the medical profession to the link between foetal X-rays and
cancer. Two decades later, in her seventies, she again called
for a change
in working practices when she published a study showing that
nuclear weapons plants are at greater health risk than international
She was born Alice Mary Naish in Sheffield in 1906. Her parents
physicians and widely known for their dedication to children’s
Alice took a medical degree at Cambridge, where she formed an
relationship with the literary critic William Empson. Their friendship
ended only with his death in 1984. But in 1933 she married Ludovick
Stewart. They had a son and a daughter, but divorced in the early
During the war she studied the health risks of industrial chemicals
factories and among miners, and in 1946 she was one of the founders
British Journal of Industrial Medicine. This first stage of her
culminated with her election as a Fellow of the Royal College
Physicians, the youngest woman to achieve this distinction. She
a reputation as a brilliant teacher and clinician.
Shortly after the war, she accepted a position under Professor
at the new department of social medicine at Oxford, and became
a Fellow of
Lady Margaret Hall. Ryle hoped to direct the attention of the
profession towards public health, and his ideals greatly appealed
Stewart, but with his death in 1949 social medicine at Oxford
and although she was kept on as a reader, she was left with “barely
to light a gas fire”.
Then, with a grant of £1,000, she launched her landmark
study of the causes
of childhood cancer. Beginning from a hunch that mothers might
something that the doctors had forgotten, she devised a questionnaire
women whose children had died of any form of cancer between 1953
By the time a mere 35 questionnaires had been returned, the answer
clear: a single diagnostic X-ray, well within the exposure considered
was enough almost to double the risk of early cancer.
This news was a surprise to Stewart and was not welcome in the
community. Enthusiasm for nuclear technology was at a high point
1950s, and radiography was being used for everything from treating
menstrual disorders to ascertaining shoe fit. X-rays, as Stewart
“were the favourite toy of the medical profession”. The British
American Governments were investing heavily in the arms race
nuclear energy, and there was little willingness to recognise
radiation was as dangerous as Stewart claimed. She never again
major grant in England.
For the next two decades, however, she and her statistician, George
extended, elaborated and refined their database at what became
Survey of Childhood Cancer, until in the 1970s major medical
recommended that pregnant women should not be X-rayed, and the
The Oxford Survey had collected information on hundreds of thousands
children across Britain over a 30-year period. Stewart and Kneale
demonstrated that children incubating cancer have greatly increased
susceptibility to infections, and turned up a connection between
inoculations and resistance to cancer which suggests links between
and the immune system. They also had theories about ultrasound
infant death syndrome that they would have liked to test — but
as they had was cut off.
In 1974, having officially retired and moved from Oxford to Birmingham,
where she had accepted a research appointment, the 68-year-old
received an unexpected phone call from America. Dr Thomas Mancuso,
been at work on a government study of the health of nuclear workers
Hanford, the weapons complex that produced plutonium for the
Project, wanted her to “take a closer look” at his data.
Mancuso’s study had been going on for more than a decade, and
expected to turn up anything troubling, since workers’ exposure
the oldest and largest nuclear weapons facility in the world,
within the safety limits set by international guidelines. But
Kneale found that the cancer risk to the workers was about 20
than was being claimed, a discovery that put them at odds with
multimillion-dollar Hiroshima and Nagasaki studies on which international
safety guidelines are based.
The American Department of Energy dismissed Mancuso and attempted
the data. But Stewart and Kneale took their work back to England
together with Mancuso, published a series of studies which continued
corroborate a cancer effect considerably higher than the Hiroshima
indicated. The Energy Department denied the scientists further
the workers’ records and kept research under strict government
Although the statistical methods of the study were criticised
by the Oxford
epidemiologist Richard Doll (who had been one of the first to
link between smoking and cancer), the Mancuso findings attracted
attention and provoked congressional investigations in 1978 and
The accidents at Three Mile Island in 1979 and Chernobyl in 1986,
British and American Governments were trying to expand nuclear
and weapons production, brought the anti-nuclear movement back
to life, and
Stewart became one of its heroes. She found herself much in demand,
on as an expert witness to testify against the siting of nuclear
and dumps and to testify in compensation cases by veterans and
had lived downwind of various plants.
In 1986, when she was 80, she received the Right Livelihood Award,
“alternative Nobel” as it is called, which is awarded in the
Parliament the day before the Nobel Prize to honour those who
contributions to the betterment of society. The British Embassy,
refused even to send a car to the airport to pick her up. In
1992 she was
awarded the Ramazzini Prize for epidemiology.
Even in the years when Stewart was making dozens of public appearances
behalf of activists in Britain and America, she always insisted
was a scientist, not an activist, and that she did not have a
programme. She published more than 400 papers in scientific journals.
However, although she could deliver her findings in person with
clarity, her publications were often very hard to decipher.
Also in 1986, Stewart received a $1.4 million grant to study the
low-dose radiation. This came not from a government agency or
institute, but from activists, and derived from a fine imposed
Three Mile Island facility. To undertake the study, Stewart needed
to the nuclear workers’ records, but the American Government
release them. It took several years and several freedom of information
suits to get at them. When in 1992 Stewart was finally granted
the records of one third of all workers in nuclear weapons facilities
the US, the front page of The New York Times called it a blow
Stewart continued to publish and present papers into her nineties.
a charismatic speaker and a person of great warmth and generosity.
not have an easy time as a lone woman in male-dominated fields,
suffered keenly from the loss of funding and her isolation as
a result of
taking unpopular stances, but she maintained that obscurity had
advantages, since it allowed her to take risks that other scientists
“Truth is the daughter of time,” she was fond of saying; and “It
this field to be long-lived” — since in such a political area
truth is slow
in coming out. She lived long enough to see radiation science
move in her
direction, with each official estimate of radiation risk acknowledging
greater danger than previous estimates admitted.
She also lived to see her efforts help to break the American Department
Energy’s hold on radiation health research. She had the satisfaction
seeing one Secretary of Energy in 1993 open the record of the
management of nuclear operations during the Cold War, including
of human experimentation, and then seeing another in 2000 recommending
compensation for nuclear workers suffering from cancers that
may have been
incurred at work.
A biography of her, The Woman Who Knew Too Much by Gayle Green,
published in England and America in 1999.
Alice Stewart is survived by her daughter.
Alice Stewart, epidemiologist, was born on October 4, 1906. She
June 23, 2002, aged 95.