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Alice Stewart (1906-2002)

Alice Stewart was a British epidemiologist. In the 1950s she demonstrated the link between fetal X‑rays and childhood cancer.

Stewart studied medicine at Cambridge University. During the Second World War she investigated health risks of factory workers, and her research saw her elected as the youngest ever Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians.

Between 1953 and 1955, Stewart launched a landmark study to investigate causes of childhood cancer. She analysed questionnaires completed by women whose children had died from cancer. Her results showed X‑rays during pregnancy doubled the risk of childhood cancer.

Stewart’s findings were not welcomed in the medical community. She said X‑rays ‘were the favourite toy of the medical profession’, but medical authorities were unwilling to recognise that radiation was as dangerous as Stewart claimed. Ian Donald’s invention of the ultrasound machine in the 1970s provided an alternative. Overwhelming evidence convinced major medical bodies to stop X‑raying pregnant women.

Stewart later became an antinuclear and radiation activist. She co-published a study with Thomas Mancuso that showed workers at nuclear weapons plants had a greater cancer risk than previously thought. Their statistical methods were criticised by Oxford epidemiologist Richard Doll, but their findings attracted public attention and prompted government investigations in the late 1970s.

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Bibliography

G Greene, The Woman Who Knew Too Much: Alice Stewart and the Secrets of Radiation (Ann Arbour: University of Michigan Press, 1999)

A M Stewart et al, ’Preliminary Communication: Malignant Disease in Childhood and Diagnostic Irradiation In-Utero’, Lancet, 2 (1956), pp 447

A M Stewart et al, ‘Radiation exposures of Hanford workers dying from cancer and other causes’, Health Physics, 33 (1977), pp 369-385

Glossary:

Epidemiology

The study of epidemic disease, including its spread, causes and methods of control.

Pregnancy

The condition of having a developing unborn embryo or foetus in the body. A human pregnancy is usually of 40 weeks gestation.

Radiation

Transmission of any type of energy by means of rays, waves or as mobile sub-atomic particles (electrons, neutrons and protons).